The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Sprit, Amen.
Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.”
The small church felt cavernous in the dark. And all around me sat people sitting quietly with unlit candles in their hands. It was my very first Easter vigil.
Down the corridor I could hear the gangling chains of a swinging incense pot, and the footsteps of choristers as the procession entered the church. And from the choir I heard a solemn but single voice singing, “The Light of Christ.” And the people stood and responded. “Thanks be to God.”
It was then that I noticed a flickering light, a large candle moving gracefully through the congregation. Perhaps it was because the room was so dark that it seemed so luminous, and enchantingly beautiful. And as the light made its way down the aisle and into the midst, that solemn voice rang out again, “The Light of Christ.” And all the people responded, “Thanks be to God.”
And as they responded, they reached their candles in, and lighted them from that great Pascal candle. And then they turned and lighted the candle of the one next to them, and the one next to them, and the one next to them,….until there, adult, children, teenagers, believers and unbelievers, holding lighted candles, the whole room was aglow. The precious light.
And the people continued to sing, “The Light of Christ; Thanks be to God!” And it seemed to me that more than light was being passed. For there was joy being passed. There was hope being passed. There was faith being passed.
No, there was no heart unmoved by the implicit mystery of faith, that Christ is the Light of the world, and his people in every generation are the bearers of that light. For as long as Christ is in the world, in the lives and the faith of Christians, Jesus is the Light of the world.
I believe today’s Gospel lesson about Jesus and the disciples encountering the blind baker, lift up at least three ways that the Church and each Christian must let the light of Christ shine.
First, I believe we are called to be sensitive communities. In a tough and raucous and macho world, we are called to be Mother Church, to let the light shine, to see and not avoid the pain that is in the world. It was quite common in Jesus’ day, just as it is in our day, to see beggars and other indigent persons at the gates of the Temple or at other public places, much like our bus stations and public parks and commercial street corners today. And since it’s Lent, I might as well confess that I’ve often become numb. I’ve often become blind. I don’t see them sometimes as I’m walking with the visors of agendas and self-preservation. And even more I find myself, and maybe you do, annoyed by those who are more aggressive, who call out or stick their cup in front of me. But then I am reminded that the plight of sufferers, physical, social or political maladies, they were never invisible to Jesus. And they cannot be invisible to his disciples.
Never should they be invisible to us, for as the Prayer Book teaches us that we should seek and serve Christ in all persons. No, I cannot respond to every condition and situation I encounter, but I can see them with the eyes of Christ. And I find that when I do, I am responding to far more than I would in my states of blindness.
Now Jesus not only addressed the immediate physical and spiritual needs of tragic persons, he also addressed the social, moral and political constructs which exacerbated their realities and diminished their human dignity.
I am sure that you remember poor blind Bartemaeus. Remember the man who cried out as Jesus was leading the honor parade through the suburbs of Jericho. The man, Bartemaeus cried out, “Jesus, Son of David,” —in other words, ‘my ethnic brother’ —”Have mercy on me.” And I’m sure you will remember that the towns’ people were embarrassed. They tried to quiet this man. He was a bad reflection on their community. He was handicapped. He was ragged, dirty, offensive in a refactory way. He was loud, and he was begging. Perhaps they had thought the elders of Jericho had removed the homeless before the parade began. Or maybe that’s a modern invention.
Surely you must remember the woman caught in adultery. You remember she was being judged and about to be stoned, while the guilty men were not even mentioned in this act of adultery. Jesus not only saved her life and forgave her sin, but Jesus confronted the chauvinist mob with their sin of sexism.
You may or may not remember Zacchaeus. That little man, but he was wealthy. But he was also lonely and guilt ridden. He was a bureaucrat. No one really saw him but Jesus. Everyone saw his material wealth and his political power and his sin of greed. But Jesus saw his loneliness, his spiritual hunger. Jesus saw the burden of guilt he felt, and he said to Zacchaeus, “This day, Zacchaeus, has salvation, has liberation, has healing, come into your life.” And it was there that the shadows of loneliness, of spiritual hunger and guilt, were dispersed by the light of Christ. And that day, Zacchaeus became a light among his political peers.
As followers of Christ, suffering an injustice, whether on the streets, the classrooms, the playgrounds of the workplaces of our lives, or even in our local congregations, must never be invisible to us. As hard as it may be to see others spiritually, we are reminded that we are to respect the dignity of every human being.
So we must not succumb to the cold numbness of indifference. But let our hearts be made afire with the light of Christ.
That great Methodist Bishop Ralph Cushing wrote a prayer that I love. And he wrote in this prayer, “Set us afire, Lord. Stir us, we pray, while the world perishes, we go our way, purposeless, passionless, day after day. Set us afire, Lord. Stir us, we pray.”
Secondly, this lesson teaches us that we are called to be an enlightened interpretive community. To let the light of Christ illumine new perspectives for us in every generation, regarding God’s love for the world.
Do you remember in the Gospel reading the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned that this man was born blind? Was it his parents? For there was the understanding, the popular theology of that day, that the sins of the fathers were visited upon the children. Or had this man, himself, sinned? There was the belief that one could even sin in the womb, coming from the interpretation of the story of Jacob and Esau in the womb of Rebecca.
But what is more interesting than this strange theology is what Jesus does. For Jesus does not even entertain this blame-game. In essence Jesus says to them, it is not about guilt, it is not about blame, rather can we not see this as an opportunity for God to be glorified? Jesus then goes on to say, we do not have much time; we must do the work that God has given us in our time, and not be blinded by accusations, by shame and blame.
At times I believe that the light of Christ will make us see things a bit differently than the popular or even traditional belief. A theology of blame can take away any sense of responsibility to heal, to act, to care, to hope, and to see ourselves and others in fresh and healing ways. New possibilities can always be seen when we’re looking through the eyes of Christ, when we see the world in the light of Christ.
I wonder, have you noticed how popular theology seldom glorifies the love and redemption of God? Rather popular theology often seeks to see situations of tragedy as evidence of hopelessness, of retribution, and of judgment. It tends to condemn and accentuate, offering the idea of a punitive and reactionary God.
We are standing at the six-month point of the terrorist attack of 9-11. And in this current war on terrorism there are Christians who would like to theologically interpret the atrocities of 9-11 by blaming feminists and gays and lesbians and liberal Christians and others. They, God has lifted the veil of protection from America, and we are getting what we deserved.
There is also the proclivity to blame and accuse Islam as a religion, calling it an inherently violent religion, an evil religion. But you know, when we do this, it makes it easy for us to ignore that there can be something that is more about the social and political realities in which we all share responsibility. It allows us to ignore the poverty and the abandonment and the abuse by western nations of so many parts of the world, which were one time useful to us, but have now been discarded, left to crumbling communities, crumbling economies, and broken social structures. And now, in desperation, many are vulnerable to the powerful winds of warlords and religious radicals. Religious radicals, who like Christian extremists, preach that suffering is because they have abandoned the true faith.
And you know, I don’t want Christianity to be judged by radicals and fundamentalists in Christianity. And I don’t believe that I should judge another religion by their extremists.
Well, speaking of Christian fundamentalism and that kind of theology, I believe that the success of them and regressive popular theology has more to do with the silence of our churches than the venomous certitude of electronic fundamentalists. I believe we must stop complaining about the neon lights of fundamentalist evangelists and let the light of Christ shine in our lives, shine in our congregations, shine in our communities. For it is amazing what difference the light of Christ’s love can make.
Early in my ministry I was a college chaplain. And a very conservative student group invited me to their state convention. I was quite eager for the opportunity because I wanted to relate to all of my students. But then I discovered when I read the bulletin that I was to lead a workshop on AIDS. Ok? Well, after my remarks, one of the students shouted out, “Come on now, we all know that AIDS is God’s vengeance on the homosexuals!” Well, with that response, more Old Testament verses began to run through that room than in a Jewish ? We went around and around and around, until I finally asked, “How do you think Jesus would respond to a man’s suffering from AIDS?” And there was silence. And then someone in the room said, “He would love him, and heal him.” And I asked, “So why are we having this debate?”
This leads to my final point. We are called to be a healing community, a healing people. It was not enough for Jesus to see sensitively. It was not enough to have enlightened interpretation. But Jesus healed. He not only saw that there might be opportunities to condemn, but he saw opportunities to glorify God.
What are the healing needs in your city? In your community? In the world where you move and live and have your being? What do you see when you look around your world? Do you see hunger? Do you see poverty? Do you see homelessness? Do you see unemployment? Is this an opportunity to blame the government? Is this an opportunity to blame the businesses, or for God to be glorified?
Do you see that there is nothing for children to do after school? No tutoring, no supervision, no structured play, no safe place for them to be? Most juvenile crime studies show happen between three and eight o’clock in the evening. Is this an opportunity to blame the schools? To blame the police department? To blame bad kids? Or is this an opportunity to glorify God?
Are there teenage mothers and fathers who have never before taught the discipline and responsibility and the joy of parenthood? Is this an occasion to seek blame? Or can it be an opportunity to glorify God?
Maybe your community is socially and economically secure. It may even be wealthy. Still I ask you, what do you see by the light of Christ? Do you see wealth disguising fear, loneliness, domestic abuse, and spiritual emptiness? Maybe you pass nice but unchurched children playing on the street as you travel on your way to church. Do we shake our heads with thoughts about a secular culture and unchurched parents? Or is this an opportunity to glorify God?
You and I know there is still much historic racial division in our community, in our schools and in our classrooms. Do you see it? Or are we blind?
We also know that, especially since September the 11th terrorists’ attacks, there has been much blame and violence and other forms of prejudice in our society, and even in our own community towards peoples of other religions and cultures. We’re discovering there is so much ignorance about other faiths and cultures and so much fear of differences. Do we join the scapegoat, or is this an opportunity for God to be glorified?
Herein lay the greatest vibrancy of the Church, to know the power within us to heal, and with all of our sins and mistakes, and all the shame that has happened in the history of our Christian Church, we must also remember that it was the Christian Church and Christians who pioneered nursing care, hospitals, homes for the aged and neglected, hospices, public education, twelve-step programs, mental health care. The anchor of social reform and the most constant moral counter to political power of government and culture, has been the Church. And in many places the Church is still the most single source of community hope and light.
As I travel in some very indigent communities, the two institutions that I see—the bar and the Church. Many times the Church is the only hope, the only light.
As we sat in that dark church, it is in many ways like the world. There is much darkness. But we have a Lord who is the light of the world. And he gives to us in each generation that light to pass on to our children, our neighbors, and our colleagues.
And I hear his voice in that great hymn by Howard Thurman, “I am the Light of the World.” Thurman heard Jesus’ voice say, “I am the light of the world. You people, come, and follow me. If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be. To find the lost and lonely one. To heal the broken soul with love. To feed the hungry children with warmth and good food. To feel the earth below, the sky above. I am the light of the world. You people, come, and follow me. If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery of what you were meant to do and be.”