The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this seventh day of Christmas, I want to ask you the question I’ve been asking myself all week, which is, what does one do for an encore, seven days after Christmas? Don’t tell the Flower Guild, even some of the poinsettias are looking a little droopy today. So why are you here? Why are we here on this New Year’s Eve, the seventh day of Christmas? Well, if you’re like me, maybe you’re here to hang on to that joy in the great good news of our Lord’s birth just a little bit longer and to carry that hope and that promise and that purpose into 2018. Maybe you’ve come to hear words of hope and assurance as we turn the page on 2017 and embark on a new year.
Well, if you listened carefully to that gospel lesson, the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel, known as The Prologue, you heard those words of hope and assurance: that the Word/Jesus existed before time and took on flesh and dwelt among us for all time, not just 2000 years ago. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light to all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Notice the present tense: the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. The darkness cannot overcome it. The darkness will not ever overcome it. The Lord took on flesh and dwelt among us, full of truth and grace. That’s God’s promise even when sometimes it seems difficult to feel that, to claim that for ourselves.
As I was thinking about the light shining in the darkness and how sometimes that seems hard for us to grasp and claim for ourselves, I was reminded of theologian Walter Brueggeman who talks about our having three seasons in life and that we move between them throughout life. The first season is sort of our homeostasis, our home base, if you will. He calls that orientation. That’s when it feels like there’s an order to things, Divine Providence, that God is in God’s place and that all is right and well with the world. We see God at work. We feel God at work. We are at work; we are filled with hope and purpose and promise.
And then, as life has it, things happen and they can shake us right out of that sense of orientation. The storms of life, the problems in life, take us into a place of what he calls disorientation, where things seem to be in disarray and chaotic and it’s hard for us to see God in the midst of that. For many people, I think 2017 might have seemed like a season of disorientation—whether it was the natural disasters of earthquake and flood and fire, these extraordinary snows in Pennsylvania; whether it was looking at the wars that continued to rage across the globe and the prospect of maybe another one on the Korean Peninsula; whether it was the ugliness of racism and sexism raising that ugly head over and over again. And certainly the political landscape in this country was not the status quo, not here, not abroad. A season of disorientation.
What are you looking forward to in 2018? I can tell you what I’m looking forward to in 2018 is moving into the third season of life which Brueggeman calls reorientation or new orientation. It is that season when, with God’s grace, we come up out of that pit, out of the darkness, and we realize that God has been there all along; that with God’s grace we know that God is in the midst of us; that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
The seasons of life. This summer, one of the books I read reminded me of this. Perhaps some of you read it. It’s called Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. It’s one of the 10 best read books this year. But don’t worry, if you haven’t read it, they’re making it into a movie so you have many options to catch up on this extraordinary story. It’s a true story based on an unlikely hero, a teenage boy in Italy who becomes a hero in his own country during the darkness of World War II. But what is even as extraordinary as his story is—and it is—is the story of how that book came to be written.
The author Mark Sullivan tells a bit of his story in the preface of the book. About 10 years ago, when he was 47, Mark Sullivan was at the lowest point in his life, in the pit—deep down, deep and dark. His brother, who was his best friend, had drunk himself to death. A book that he’d written, no one wanted to read. He was in a business dispute and he was on the brink of personal bankruptcy. He was driving one evening. It was cold and snowy, probably a little bit like it is right now. He was so weighted down by the darkness in his life that he began to muse about his life insurance policies and he began to think about the fact that he was worth more to his family dead than alive. And he thought about driving his car into the highway abutment because it was a snowy night and no one would suspect suicide.
But in his mind’s eye an image of his wife and his children came to mind and he had a change of heart. He pulled the car over on the side and he began to shake uncontrollably, thinking about what he had just been through. He was on the brink of a breakdown and he bowed his head and he prayed. Actually, he writes that he begged God to help him, to give him a story larger than himself that he could get lost in. Deep down in the pit and God answered his prayer that very night!
He went on to a gathering and he began to hear snippets of a story, a true story, about this teenage boy in Italy who had become a part of the Roman Catholic underground railroad and helped bring people to safety during World War II. This man was still alive, living in Italy. And he knew that was the story God had given him to tell. So, with a lot of persistence in continuing to call Pino Lella, who was now almost 90, he persuaded him to let him come to Italy and for him to tell the story that he’d never told, never shared. So Mark Sullivan painstakingly drew the story out and did the research and the book is tragic, it is triumphant. But it’s a story about an ordinary teenager who said yes when God called him.
When he was 17 and his family home was destroyed by bombs in Milan, his parents sent him off to the Alps to a Roman Catholic boys’ camp that he and his brother had been a part of for many years. And Father Re, his beloved Father Re, was still running the camp. And God, through Father Re, invited Pino to do something very very dangerous, which was to help Jews in Italy escape over the Italian Alps into Switzerland to safety. Pino said yes and he did it over and over and over again, risking his life time and time again to save people he didn’t know.
And then when he was 18, a series of circumstances came together—some would call them coincidences, but I believe God had God’s hand on the whole thing. He had the opportunity and was invited to become the personal driver for the highest ranking Nazi official in Italy which gave him access to confidential and terribly useful information. And he was asked if he would be a spy underground, risking his life to do so, to give critical information to the resistance movement and later, to the Allies. He said yes. The light, shining in the darkness.
You see, that’s the story. God takes ordinary people like you and me and enables us empowers us to do extraordinary things if we just say yes to the invitation. Mary said yes to Gabriel. Joseph said yes after hearing the dream. Pino said yes. You and I have the opportunity to listen for the Lord, to look for the light, and then to be the light shining in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
My prayer for you in 2018, is that you will hold fast to a story larger than yourself and not get lost in it, but find yourself in it. That when the Lord places something on your heart for you to do that you will say yes and to carry the light into the darkness in the city, in this nation, in the world. We can all do it with God’s help.
Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. God bless you. Amen.