Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29 (UMH 761), Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17
We don’t really experience seasons here in Houston. Well…more accurately, we experience all the seasons in 2 days time. So it’s probably good there are seasons of Christian life, that are more defined the the seasons of our own lives or than the seasons of Houston. We are finishing up the 12 days of Christmas, where we remember God drawing near to us in a new and powerful way. During the 40 days of Lent, we’ll come together and grieve God’s loneliness due to our sin. During the 50 days of Easter, we’ll celebrate God’s decisive victory over sin and death. These seasons carry with them many emotions….we’ll speak in this place about deep sadness and unspeakable joy, about celebration and grieving. The strange thing about the seasons of the church year is that we sometimes may feel we have to summon the emotions that match them. For example, you or I may not have felt especially close to God during these past few days, even though the season says we ought to. During the dark days of Lent there will likely be many reasons to feel happy. And even amid the joy of Easter, the real grief and suffering that many of us face do not magically disappear because we sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today. So our Christian life takes us through the seasons of the Church each year, whether we feel them or not. Sometimes we embrace them, sometimes we may crawl from one to the other, but still we go, because eventually, if we keep going, it is how we learn to put on Christ, to experience the truth of Gospel in every time and season and mood of life.
And so that brings us to today. This Sunday, we mark Epiphany Sunday, beginning the seasons of Epiphany that will carry us into Lent. Epiphany really happened on Friday, 12 days after Christmas. This used to be a more important day in the church year than December 25th, though that is certainly no longer the case. In fact, it seems that Epiphany is the least understood of all seasons in the Church. I have to admit, until seminary, I am not sure I knew what Epiphany was…and even now, it’s the season of the year about which people have the most questions. The most common being “what is Epiphany?” I have gotten that question many times, and wish that I gave a better answer. Usually I mention the wise men coming to see Jesus, following the star and all of that….things that conjure the image of 3rd graders in bathrobes and cardboard crowns bringing tinfoil covered gifts to a Jesus doll. As I have been reading our passage from Isaiah, I think my answer is a little lacking.
Epiphany is a flash of light in the middle of a deep darkness, according to Isaiah…”darkness covers the earth, deep darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon and his glory will appear over you….lift up your eyes and look around.” Now, notice that Isaiah doesn’t say that the light burst of light dispels the darkness once and for all. No one in the Bible ever says that. All it ever says is that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. Isaiah says to us, even though darkness is all around, covering everyone, God’s light is breaking in, just over your heads. Lift up your eyes and look around, see all the people that are flocking to you because they see the light around you. People everywhere are so tired of sitting in the dark.
It was a bleak time for Israel when these words were first spoken. The Babylonian army had destroyed their holy city, brought their Temple to ruin, put out the eyes of the king and marched the people of God for three months across the desert. Even once the mighty Babylonians fall, another Empire takes over, and even the Israelites who are allowed to return home are slaves to the Empire. It is into this darkness that the prophet Isaiah speaks light, speaks Epiphany, a flash of brilliant light in the darkness.
The constant word from Isaiah is that God’s light breaks into the world in precisely the places where God’s people are suffering. Isaiah is a prophet unafraid to demand something of God, to tell God exactly like it is….the people have given up on polite piety, on religion that looks good, and instead look up to heaven and call out to God “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” DO something….can’t you see we need someone to save us?
Well, perhaps the heavens weren’t torn open in an obvious way over the little town of Bethlehem, but God came down none the less. And during the terrible reign of Herod, astrologers followed a little light in the heavens that drew them to God’s always-burning hope for the world. They come into a dusty little town under the rule of a brutal tyrant who values no one’s life but his own. In a small corner of a place patrolled by Roman forces, the magi stop and are “overwhelmed with joy.” What lead them here? How did these Gentiles from the east know anything about the God of Israel and about what was happening with this infant king? It doesn’t make much sense that they would travel so far to visit a place of such darkness and oppression. But they were stargazers. Their whole existence was about looking up at the night sky and paying attention to things that went way beyond their understanding and imagination. Who knows better than them how to find a light piercing the darkness? They knew how to look for that one, tiny light in the sky amid all that darkness with a smattering of other lights.
We struggle with that some, at least I do. That’s not quite how I’d like the light to work. I would like to the light to work like my next door neighbors’ driveway flood lights worked when I was growing up. My childhood bedroom was never completely dark, because my windows faced their house and they had giant lights that illuminated their whole drive and their backyard basketball court. They had teenage kids and we thought we were the coolest when we got to go play basketball next door after dark. Those floodlights lit every corner of that backyard and driveway-plenty to remind any teenage kid that nobody was sneaking out of anywhere at that house. You could see to play a full game in the middle of night. That’s the kind of light I like- the kind that is so bright it lights up every little corner and leaves no trace of shadow. Here’s the deal though. When the Bible talks about light, that’s not the kind of light they mean. That kind of light in the night could not even be conceived of- the kind of light you used to light the night, looked like this (hold up oil lamp). Oil lamps do not make giant, expansive light. They give you just enough to see what’s next. Just enough not to be sitting in the dark. Just enough to light up the face across the table. Just enough.
We want the big light- the driveway floodlights. The one where God shows in one fell swoop everything that’s ahead and everything that’s around and any possible obstacle nearby. That’s not the light we’re promised though. This is the light we most often find. The one that’s small, flickering and gives just enough light for the next couple of steps. So the best thing that we can do with the light we have is use it to light a few more lamps. I told you last week that during this month we would be giving to opportunities to spread light in the new year as we resolve together to be people of compassion and justice. Last week, I invited you to make health kits for the United Methodist Committee on relief (give info). This week I want to invite you to something that will make a huge difference right in our own backyard, the light some lamps in the public schools in the Northside neighborhood. WE have been talking about Northside neighborhood for a while and trying to ask what we can partner with God to be better neighbors across the bridge. I have hoped for a the floodlights to shine on that and have mostly found littly oil lamps to light the way. But there is a way to light some more. There are 6 schools in Northside, just across the freeway from here. These are schools with great teachers and leaders and students, but the struggle for the kind of parent and community involvement that is generally expected on this side of the bridge. It’s in a neighborhood where many parents don’t have the kind of jobs that allow the flexibility of participating in a child’s school. I think we can help bridge some of that gap. Now, when Katie and I went to visit some of the schools this past week I was afraid they’d tell me what I am used to hearing from schools- that what they really, really need are mentors and tutors who can come once a week, at the same time, every week. Now, that is some of the most important work to be done in public schools and there is need for it. But I can’t really make that work and I know a lot of people can. But the school we went to mostly did not even suggest that. They need simple things- often things that you do one time, or once a month or once a 6 weeks. At Marshall Middle, where, by the way the staff person at the front door, when Katie and I introduced ourselves said “Oh, you brought us cookies!” Small acts of kindness really do make an impact. At Marshall they need people to help serve refreshments once per 6 weeks at an awards ceremony. At Northside High, they are trying to revive a defunct Parent Teacher Organization and can use help with events and planning and simple things like supplies- their allotment of paper does not allow them to even send a note home to every parent as they try to organize. There’s one opportunity there for someone who speaks Spanish to help with an after school class, not for students, but for the English speaking teachers who are trying to learn Spanish to communicate better with parents. Looscan Elementary has an after school ESL class for students that needs support- if you think you need to speak Spanish to help with ESL, let me assure you, you do not. At Martinez Elementary, they were so stunned to get people wanting to come volunteer that they basically said show up whenever and we’ll put you to work. All of them talked about helping with office work, making a bulletin board, helping with a special event…all things that someone like me and someone like you, who has a busy schedule, can make time for every once in a while. Even if your work absolutely does not allow you to be at school during the day or in the after school hours, we’ll have opportunities available to help get students what they need for testing in March, and other chances for you to support our local schools.
I can hardly think of any place more important to light some lamps that in public schools. Especially schools so unaccustomed to help that they did a double take when they saw us standing there. All we are asking you to do today is go to website in your bulletin for HISD’s Volunteers in Public Schools program. It will ask you to select a couple of schools. We have listed for both primary and secondary schools in the Northside neighborhood that would be eager to receive you. Signing up on the website does not commit you to anything. It simply initiates a background check and then when you’re ready to volunteer, all you have to do is show up to the school with an ID. It’s a very simple process. We are asking you, even if you’re not ready right now, having this done will ensure then when the time comes you’re all set to go. Once you’ve signed up, email me or Katie and let us know. If you’re already volunteering at a school, we would love to know that, too. We need you for this. If you speak Spanish, we need you. If you speak English, we need you. If you can sharpen a pencil, we need you. If you can open a juice box, we need you. If you can hand out a piece of pizza, we need you. Don’t think that you don’t have anything to give to our kids and educators.
When we visited Marshall this past week, the Administrative Assistant we were visiting with said that just this week, they had three refugees show up to register for school who were brand new to the neighborhood and to the country. They were able to get them some supplies and backpacks, but wouldn’t it be great if they knew when something like that happened they could call us, because they know that we are committed to all God’s children being able to learn? Wouldn’t it be great if those teachers and administrators knew that were committed to helping hold light in their schools? I think this is a place where St. Mark’s can make a big community impact in 2017 and more importantly, can get to know our neighbors better.
If Christmas and Epiphany teach us anything, it’s that it only takes a little light to dispel the darkness. So we go into 2017 committed to be people of light. May it be so in the name of..