Homily for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
“The people who have walked in the darkness have seen a great light.”
A few years ago, I was given a copy of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark. I wasn’t too far into the text when her descriptive metaphors of light and dark playing out in our spiritual lives stirred up a vivid childhood memory for me. I was probably 7 or 8 and staying the night with my Gramma and Aunt at the family farm. It was a moonlit night, and my Aunt invited me to follow her outside; we walked down the steps and across the front lawn, crossed the dirt and gravel driveway, and headed through the shadows into the larger side yard where she had a flower garden. She motioned for me to come around the back corner of the garden, by the barn which looked rather spooky at night. I was a little bit scared but as I walked, my eyes adjusted and the scene began to be familiar. Then, much to my surprise, I saw a bush that had been a green, leafy vine all day suddenly filled with beautiful, round white flowers that had unfurled in the night. That first encounter with moonflowers made me a lifelong fan. I even snuck out to try to find them on my own several times after that.
I’ve come to learn that there are many things that emerge during the darkness, once we learn to see them. The stars come into view in what at first seems like a dark sky, sometimes layers upon layers of them; as my vision acclimates, I might notice the rabbit family by the back fence, or the squirrels nesting in a tree; I can infer the position of the moon in the sky by what is illuminated and what is in shadow. Walking in the darkness begins to feel quiet and peaceful, even when at first, we’re afraid.
In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, we’re invited to confront some of the fears and social value judgements we’ve been taught about the dark, breaking down the “dark is bad/light is good” dichotomy and all of the layers of complexity and unconscious bias that can accompany that polarization. She invites us to sit in the darkness, to let our fears and misconceptions come into full view and then invites us to move more deeply into the spaces of darkness that are holy and essential for our growth. Seeds germinate in the dark. The cycles of darkness and light mark the days, and the seasons. The earth rotates with regularity so that the sun’s light is not perpetually on one side or the other, but balanced in the rotation of day and night that provides time to work and time to rest. The dark is essential to our growth. The deliberateness with which we learn to walk in the dark is essential to our own journey of learning to trust not only what seems obvious to us in the light, but also what we can only sense and observe when we have walked in the dark.
I also want to acknowledge that many of us may feel like we’re walking in the dark today. We’re grieving some beloved members of this community. We woke to news of another senseless mass shooting. The darkness we may be experiencing is a real part of life, not just a metaphor. I see you, and invite you to come into this exploration of darkness and light just as you are.
In today’s Gospel passage, the darkness in which Jesus has been walking is hinted at in the first verse of the portion we read. If we would have started reading at the beginning of Chapter 4 instead of verse 12, we would have heard the story-between-the-stories from Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus is Baptized by John; Jesus is immediately led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan for 40 days…and waited on by angels; Jesus returns from this wilderness vision quest to learn that John has been imprisoned, which we know under Roman occupation was at great risk and in response to John’s public proclamation of the coming of the Messiah. I imagine that Jesus immediately saw and heard the fear in those around him.
In response, Jesus withdraws to Galilee. As he had learned to trust during his time in the wilderness, he now walked in trust into his ministry, one step in the dark at a time. We’re told that he follows the course which has been laid out for him through the great prophet, Isaiah, and makes his home in Capernaum by the Sea. From that time, Jesus took up the ministry of John, following the same words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The Jewish readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have recognized the words of the prophet Isaiah. And those who had followed John in the wilderness would have known John’s wilderness cry. John had been exiled to prison; Jesus had been tempted in the desert; the marginalized Jewish people of Roman-occupied Galilee were not able to see what was next. But Jesus reminded them, the people who sat in darkness began to see a great light.
I admit, I went on a bit of an exegetical tangent this week, spending time with the Hebrew and the Greek in an effort to understand why the Gospel text we have says, “sit” while the passage from Isaiah said, “walk.” I won’t take us too far down that road, but what my conclusion was is that there is an action orientation implied that this use of “sit” is a precursor to “walk.” Sitting in the darkness holds the potential to walk, and to follow.
I invite you to consider today’s passages about light and darkness not like a sudden blaze of glory, or as one canceling out the other but as the both/and of divine presence. The radiant Light of Christ which the people saw in Jesus was sourced from God who was and is also present in darkness, not in spite of it. We aren’t abandoned by God when we are walking through the dark places of our lives or of this world. Like the moonflowers of my childhood, the wonder of God’s presence is often the most noticeable from the dark places of our lives, as our eyes open to see the wonder of God around us.
The Gospel lessons in the Sundays after the Epiphany help us see the Light of Christ which Jesus has been emboldened to carry into his ministry. We see it in his Baptism; through navigating the wilderness of temptation to collude with structures of power; through returning home to visible oppression and jarring grief knowing one’s companion in ministry has been imprisoned for merely being who they were. This Light of Christ was an illuminating beacon, one that perhaps had been charged and intensified in the wilderness. The Light offered direction, and revealed a depth and dimension of this world that those sitting and walking in the darkness began to see as their eyes attuned to it. The divine, radiant Light now dwelling with them helped open their eyes to behold the wonder that was opening all around them.
I think this Light of Christ is what caught the attention of Simon Peter and Andrew, casting nets on shore and James and John, mending their nets on a fishing boat. We get caught up imagining the immediacy of their leaving and following so surprisingly and unconditionally. This story and all its images of light AND darkness makes me wonder whether the soon-to-be-disciples had already been attuning to the light of God’s presence in their lives, seeing more clearly with the eyes of their hearts, walking their faith step by step as they went about the tasks of their lives. As people who fished for a living, they also had become adept at responding when the time was right. Body, mind and spirit aligned on the shores of Galilee; the radiant Light of Christ was revealed in the ordinary activities of their lives and filled them with new possibility; and like the glory that shone in the star of Bethlehem and at the Baptism of Jesus, they saw the wonder with their own eyes and were compelled to follow.
Of course, we can’t know exactly what was happening in the inner lives of the disciples leading up to that call. We can catch glimpses, though, and these glimpses of the divine help paint a story not only of the disciples who followed Jesus, but of the ways in which Jesus himself carried the Light of Christ as his own light, having been named and claimed as God’s own in Baptism and following the leading of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ ministry emerged from that holy naming and claiming of his heavenly identity AND the call upon his human life.
In this narrative of Jesus’ first immersion into a life of ministry, even if much cannot be seen, we can be assured that God was and is present in the person and ministry of Jesus…through every bright and shining moment, and through the wilderness and the darkness, too. In our lives of faith, we are assured that the Light of Christ and the Love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit are present for us, too. That’s true in the darkness, and true in the light.
When we are grieving for the people we love, God is present with us. When we are frustrated by the systems of power and oppression that leave groups of people marginalized, God is present at those very margins illuminating the spark of the divine that rests in each and every person, regardless. When we walk the shores of our lives alone, God is present showing us those who are also on the journey whose gifts and strengths can be for us exactly what we need. When we face the realities of our lives and labors which are daunting and in need of repair, God is present and showing us the net-menders who can help us heal. Throughout our lives, the Light of Christ shines and gives us deeper, clearer vision for ministry. We need to take time: to remember who we are, and whose we are. And in that remembering, the clarity of what we know in our lives of faith and the Good News of Jesus Christ illumines our path and helps us see what once was hidden. The Light of Christ dwells with us and in us, and in all those whom we encounter.
As Barbara Brown Taylor offers up in her book, “remembering takes time, like straightening a bent leg and waiting for the feeling to return. This cannot be rushed, no matter how badly you want to get where you are going. Step 1 of learning to walk in the dark is to give up running the show. Next you sign the waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first. Finally, you ask darkness to teach you what you need to know.” (p. 15).
I’ve never heard a more truthful depiction of ministry into the corners of the world (and of ourselves) most in need of the Light of Christ. As we continue our biblical foray into the lives of Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John and the other disciples throughout the liturgical year, we hear the desire to rush, to try to control things, the many times of bumping into themselves or others and being frightened of what they see or might encounter in the days to come. And we continue to hear Jesus, the Light of Christ, reminding them that everywhere they turn there are lessons and things to see right where they are: at tables others don’t want to eat at, in people deemed unclean, by crossing into places other people have rejected as less worthy, by taking on roles of servant and learning that the poor will see God and the meek will inherit the earth. It wasn’t what they had seen before; like us, they were still learning to walk in trust. And yet, in the Light of Christ people are healed; systems are broken down and remade; the Good News is shared, and love prevails. Love that is stronger, even than death. Those lessons cannot be rushed: they come through trust, through our step by step walk through life; through learning to see with new eyes as the Light of Christ illuminates it for us.
Jesus, our Light: Give us grace to see the wonder of your presence as we step faithfully to do the work that you have called us to do.