Bishop Mariann preached this to the Christ Church, Georgetown congregation.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light…He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
Good morning, Christ Church! What a blessing to worship God with you in this holy season. I’m grateful to your good rector Tim Cole, the clergy and lay staff of Christ Church, the wardens and vestry for their leadership. It’s been a year of many challenges, and I pray God’s continued strength and encouragement as we make our way. I’m honored to preside at Confirmation and Reception during this visitation and I pray God’s blessing on those being confirmed and received.
In honor of the confirmands and those being received, I’d like to explore with you one particular aspect of the Christian life, how we are to live as followers of Jesus. As was said of John the Baptist in this morning’s text, so, too, for us: we are to “testify to the light,” light in the symbolic sense of all that is good and just and true, all that speaks of hope and love, all that gives us reason to believe in a God who loves us even when we are not spared sorrow and suffering.
Sometimes testifying to the light is easy because there is such palpable joy within and around us. Other times it’s challenging because life is hard and we can’t pretend otherwise. Our hearts are broken, our bodies are exhausted, or something has happened that we can’t smooth over with platitudes or positive thinking.
The attorneys and judges in our company would remind us that we’re not to lie when we testify, never pretend or gloss over the truth. That’s not what testifying to the light looks like. It’s more an openness to receive light when it comes to us in the midst of challenge, and even to search for bits of goodness to sustain us through the harder times.
There’s a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. that encapsulates what I’m trying to describe here. It comes from the early days of his public ministry, when as a young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, he had been catapulted into the role of spiritual leader and logistical organizer for a city-wide boycott of the public transportation system. In Southern states at the time, Black Americans were only allowed to sit in the back few seats of buses and always had to give up their seat on demand for White people. For over a year, Black men, women and children chose to walk or carpool to work and school to protest the discrimination against them and bring about a change in the law. In the beginning there was a lot of excitement and energy and resolve among the boycotters, but as time went on the excitement wore off. People were getting tired and discouraged. Some of the White citizens took it upon themselves to harass and even attack the boycotters. Dr. King and his family started receiving threatening phone calls. One night their house was bombed. There wasn’t any social media in those days, but there was a lot of meanness in the air, inciting all manner of violence.
One night, Dr. King couldn’t sleep. He sat for hours at his kitchen table, worrying about his children’s safety and about the people risking their jobs and even their lives in an effort that didn’t seem to be making an impact. As he tells the story of that night, King prayed aloud, telling God that he was at the end of his rope. The way ahead was dark and he couldn’t see. A lot of people were depending on him to lead and he didn’t know what to do. As he sat alone, slowly a warm feeling came over him. He sensed God’s presence and heard God’s speak to him. “Trust your instincts, Martin,” he heard God say. “Do what you know is right.”
Dr. King rose from his kitchen table trusting that the little light he had was enough to take the next step, and then the next, and the next. After 381 days, the boycott succeeded in bringing an end to racial segregation on buses, one of the first important milestones in the long struggle for Civil Rights. King’s life was a testimony to the light in the midst of a lot of darkness in our country.
Let’s go a bit deeper now to consider the nature of darkness and light. It’s important to remember that there isn’t anything wrong with darkness in itself. Our lives begin and are nurtured in darkness. We need darkness as we need light. In the words of the psalmist, “Darkness is not dark to you, O God. The night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light to you are both alike.” But the defining characteristic of darkness is that when we’re in it, we can’t see. Light is what illuminates darkness. For the first Christians light became a powerful metaphor for Jesus himself, the one who comes as light into the world, a light that shines in darkness. Whatever light we’re given helps us find our way.
Sometimes darkness seems to come over us like a cloud blocking the sun. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing–it can come in the form of a decision we need to make, or a horizon that we feel drawn to, or a feeling that somehow we’ve lost our way. So we stumble along in the darkness as best we can, unable to see. To testify to the light in times of darkness is not about manufacturing light, but looking for whatever flickers that we come our way. The novelist E. L. Doctorow famously said of the process of writing a novel, “It’s like driving in the car with your headlights on. You can’t see very far ahead of you, but you can make the entire journey that way.”
There are times, however, when we enter the darkness by choice, in search of light, which is an act of love. We make the choice to enter darkness every time we show up for a friend or loved one in pain; when we are present and accounted for in challenging circumstances or among the people who unnerve us or even wish us harm; when we speak out for truth when it would easier to remain quiet; when we dare to offer whatever bits of hope we can muster in situations of seemingly endless suffering. Our presence can feel like the most inadequate of gifts in those times, but it may be the very lifeline that another needs.
In my experience, it’s impossible to testify to the light by myself. I am not capable, on my own, of keeping my spirits up and my eyes focused on the light all the time. Sometimes I falter and lose hope; sometimes I am tempted to give in to despair; more important, sometimes the most honest prayer I can muster is the acknowledgement that I cannot see and I need help. LIke Dr. King at his kitchen table, it doesn’t do me any good in those times to pretend that I see it when I don’t. But as I acknowledge my blindness or lack of hope and offer all that’s in me to God, I am open to receive light from another source–be it in the kind gesture of another, a word of encouragement, an invitation to go through a door that I didn’t even know was there. Testifying to the light is a communal practice. I, for one, draw strength and courage from the example of others.
I conclude with two stories: one about searching for light in the darkest of places, and one of light that was closer than anyone realized.
Hiskias Assifa was born and raised in Ethiopia. He now lives in Kenya, where he works as a peace negotiator for the United Nations. He also teaches courses on peacemaking at Brandeis University in Boston and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where a friend of mine studied with him.
Hiskias Assifa spent years negotiating peace between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of Rwanda. In late 1993, he and his team thought they had succeeded, after tribal leaders agreed to a policy of power-sharing throughout the country. Assifa left Rwanda satisfied with his work and grateful for the progress made for peace. In April of 1994, however, the government of Rwanda called on everyone in the Hutu majority to kill everyone in the Tutsi minority. Over the next 3 months, 800,000 Tutsis were murdered. Every person that Assifa had worked with to broker peace was now dead.
The following year, he told the story of his presumed success and sober failure to the students of his peacemaking class at EMU, among them my friend. He also told them of his plans to return to Rwanda. “How can you go back?” his students asked. “What can you possibly do for peace in the face of such violence?” He replied, “I am a Christian. For Christians, hopelessness is not an option.”1
Hiskias Assifa had no light of his own to bring to the devastation in the aftermath of genocide. But he went to one of the darkest places on the planet in search of light, in search of any possibility with which to begin again. He himself was not the light, but he returned to testify to the possibility of light in humanity’s darkest hour.
Finally, a story of light that is as close as the person next to us. Among you stands one whom you do not know, John said of the one who was to come after him. He’s around here somewhere; he may even be standing next to you, but you can’t see him yet. The seeds of the future are planted in the soil of today, someone once said to me, and it’s our job to look for and protect those seeds as they grow unnoticed in our midst.
There once was a monastery that had fallen on hard times. The monks were all getting older and there were no new monk prospects anywhere. Their way of life seemed to be dying. The abbot of the monastery, a kind and thoughtful man, decided to travel to a nearby town to seek the counsel of the town rabbi, a wise person and old friend of the abbot. But when he told the rabbi his plight, the rabbi commiserated, saying that the same thing was happening in the synagogue: the old ones were dying off and the young were no longer drawn to the religious life.
As the two old men concluded their visit, sharing prayers and tears, the abbot asked one more time, “Is there no word of guidance you can give me?” “No, I am sorry,” responded the rabbi, “I have nothing. But I will tell you this: The Messiah is one of you.”
The Messiah is one of us? How could that be, the abbot wondered as he returned to the monastery, as did all the other monks when he told them what the rabbi had said. For the next few days and weeks, the monks wondered–which one of us is the Messiah? Surely not Brother Aelred, he’s such a grump. But then again, he is almost always right in what he has to say. Or could the Messiah be Brother Joseph? Surely not. Brother Joseph is so insecure and nervous. But then again, his heart is as good as gold. May Brother Joseph is the Messiah. So it went. A monk or two even wondered if he himself was the Messiah. Definitely not, they concluded. But then again, with God, anything is possible. Could I possibly be the chosen one of God?
As time went on, the monks began to treat one another with extraordinary respect, on the off chance that one of them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that they themselves might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. And the spirit of such respect came to pervade every aspect of the monastery’s life. Visitors to the monastery noticed that spirit and commented upon it. They were inexplicably drawn to it, as to a light shining in darkness. In time, some of the visitors inquired about life inside the monastery and what it would take for them to be part of it. Now the monastery is thriving once again, a beacon of light and love for all those who come through its gates.2
To testify to the light. To wait and watch for it in times of darkness. To seek it out and follow it, wherever the bits of light may lead. To be willing to go to the darkest places in search of light. And to be open to the light shining within us and others that we do not yet see. That is the Christian way of life, in which hopelessness is not an option, not because of us, but because of the light that shines in, through, and among us that the darkness cannot overcome.
1 I heard the story of Hiskias Assifa from the Rev. Sarah Shofstal who studied with Assifa at Eastern Mennonite University.
2 I first read the story of the monastery in M. Scott Peck’s book, The Different Drum: Community and Peacemaking (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 13-15.