Listen to the audio recording of the sermon:

Rev. Dr. Malcolm Sinclair

Third Sunday after Epiphany

January 26, 2020

1 Corinthians 1.10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Matthew 4.12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and made his home by Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called to them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

God always blesses the hearing of the word.

I love thee Lord Jesus, look down from the sky.  And stay by my side until morning is nigh.  That is the prayer of every child in the dark, and it is the prayer of every child inside us.  We’re all afraid of the dark.

And we live between two realities, two basic realities – they’re so common we take them for granted everyday:  light and darkness, those are the two.  It evens out at about 50/50.  Light is familiar, darkness is strange.  Light is empowering, darkness is diminishing.  Light is enabling, darkness is disabling.

I’ve walked around my country property a hundred times and I know where all the stumps are, until its dark.  There was a moon shining in the distance one night and our grandchildren said, “Let’s go look at the moon Grandpa!”  And, out I went and fell over the two stumps I’d stepped over every single day; both stumps right in the shins.  The darkness is a difficulty.

But there is a deeper reality still than the difference between light and darkness, and it is far more difficult to grasp:  it is the distinction between existence and non-existence.  We didn’t know where we were before we got here.  We hardly know where we are while we’re here.  And we have no idea where we’re going when we’re not here anymore.  Existence and non-existence – meaning is something we create.  It is speculation, at best, even though we put all our money on it.  There is mystery at both ends and the light is powerful and, therefore, we seek the light.

Indeed, the poets, who are always listening, heard God’s first word to the unformed cosmos – let there be light.  And there was light.  You can’t get any deeper than that.

Now these three lectionary passages from today illuminate themes of light.  And I wanted to pick up on them with you this morning.  The Isaiah passage is about light disconnected.  Light got lost somewhere along the way.  Perhaps through the weight of trouble, or self-serving pre-occupation, or the tsunamis of war and injustice – who knows!  Somewhere along the way light got lost.

There is no light in Donald Trump’s arguments with the Iranian government – no light there.

There’s no light in illegal Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory – no light.

There’s no light in caged children on the border of Mexico and the United States.

There’s no light in climate deniers and the corruption of political life, wherever we look.

There’s no light in gun violence, or in the sexual trafficking of young women and girls.

The mood is dark these days and we are all experiencing the greyness of a lack of light.  People are edgy.  People are touchy.  People are worried about the health of our society.

You think of the leadership – Trump and Putin, and Crimea and Duterte.  You think of popularism and fascism on the rise.  The one percent against the ninety-nine percent, and the surrendering of the evangelical faithful to political power – it seems there is a great darkness in the land.

But suddenly there is a moment of perception, says the text.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Something changed the mood.  We don’t know what it was, exactly, but this passage in Isaiah is about a change of mood.  Once the mood changes, you see the whole thing differently.

They compared it to a military victory.  We may not win all the victories, but we won a victory today.  It’s like the end of a period of oppression.  Suddenly there is a brightness to us and a lightness in our step which was not there before.  Suddenly, it’s like joy in a relationship – something blossoms, and we find ourselves loving it.  It’s like sudden security of home.  Indeed, the writer said, it’s like the day of Midian; do you remember the day of Midian?  (I had to look that one up since I’d been retired for a year.)  It’s in the book of Judges.  It has to do with Gideon.  Gideon, the judge.

The Midianites were a powerful army about to roll over little Israel.  And Gideon tried to gather an army and the people had no desire to put themselves in harm’s way.  And so, God said to Gideon, choose 300 warriors, just 300, and take clay pots, and take a torch and put the clay pot over the torch and then go and hideout around the camp of the Midianites and listen to what you hear.  To their amazement, Gideon and his followers heard insecurity, uncertainty in the camp, a sudden fear that things were not going to go well tomorrow even though the Midianite army outnumbered the army ten to one.  And at a moment – the right moment – Gideon shouted, take the covers off your lanterns, remove the clay pots, light them, and shout “for God, and Gideon.”.  They raced into the camp and won a great victory for God and Gideon.  The right person.  The right power.  In the right moment.  And the perception changes and it’s a whole new world, and the light comes on.  That’s the illustration:  Gideon and his 300.  It’s as if somebody threw a switch.  Have you ever seen that?

I went to one of our Toronto churches last Sunday for worship, a friend of mine was being celebrated there.  Things were pretty slim; as they are in lots of United Churches across the country these days.  I went early and there were a few people hiding in the corners and talking to themselves.  The building was a bit of a shambles.  And I sat up near the front – there were two people here, three people there.  I think in total, when the service began, there might have been 18 people in a vast hall.  And there was a man sitting in front of me, about four rows up by himself – he was there earlier than I was – he was hunched over on himself, a man in middle years with a toque pulled down over his head, a dark black coat and smelled of cigarette butts.  And I sat back behind him and I just wondered what kind of trouble that was going to be that day – you do that when you’ve worked downtown as long as I have.

Just before the service began, he got up and he took off his toque and he took off his coat and he walked down the aisle past me, and when I looked around, he was standing with the two ministers, and the four members of the choir.  He had a taper in his hand, and he preceded them walking up the aisle and lit the two candles on the table to indicate the light of Christ in the congregation.  The way he walked was the most gracious thing I had ever seen.  Suddenly that empty space; falling apart at the edges, people mumbling in the corners, was filled with the sanctity of God’s spirit, and I saw it and my perception changed.

When he walked past me, on his way back, I stepped into the aisle and I said, I want to thank you for changing my perception of this morning.  Your walk down the aisle was as full of grace as anything I have ever seen.  He simply said, “Thank you.”  He didn’t stay for the sermon but he didn’t have to, because you see he was the sermon – the perception changed and suddenly there was light in the face of a great darkness, somebody threw the switch.

Poets always have known that the great light changes everything.  Think of William Wordsworth in his lines written above Tinturn Abbey:

I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts.  A sense of something far more deeply interfused whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky and in the mind of man.  A motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things. 

Light.  Sudden light changes the perception, and that is wonderful.

The Corinthian passage is about light distracted.  That which was once clear, and a unity, has broken up into small bits that are rolling all over the place.  There has been a mutiny, it appears, on the ship of faith and the crew is now in little jolly boats separately rowing away from the main craft with their little treasures and their front-end cannons loaded against any of their crewmen who dare to come near.  There are differences of opinion and affection that damage the faith.

I was thinking that faith – Christian faith – is like a clothesline when you think about it.  It’s tied to something at one end and its tied to something at the other end, and people hang their faith statements along it from one end to the other.

At one end is the cosmic Christ, it is the mystical Christ, it is the redeemer of the earth – the one who holds our fate and our souls in golden hands.  This is the Christ of poetry and music and arts and feast days and fabrics and colours.  This is the Christ of stained-glass windows and the weeping and the wondrous heart.  We know about that Christ.  It is the Christ of Teilhard de Chardin, and Julian of Norwich, and C.S. Lewis, and St. Teresa of Avila.

And at the other end of the clothesline is the gritty Christ.  It’s the one who battles corruption, who takes on the Emperor and the ruling elite.  He’s the one who walks among the dispossessed and sits with the desolate.  This is the Christ of the stinging editorial, of the picket line.  This is the Christ of the ones who bother the President day after day.  This is the Christ of Hong Kong demonstrators.  The Christ of Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, Dr. Blaséy Ford, the accusers of Harvey Weinstein – this is that Christ.  A Christ who is unwelcome in the board rooms, feared by the greedy, who is the bane of cheats and liars and has a probing finger in the heart of those suffering from grievous tumours – it is that Christ.  It’s the Christ of Janice Ian, and James Forbes Jr., and Martin Luther King Jr. – that Christ.

By nature, we are closer to one end of the clothesline than the other; and, making a confession here, I am more naturally closer to the cosmic, mystical Christ.  I would rather write a poem than man a barricade, even though the time for manning barricades may be nearer for me, and for us, than I could imagine.

At Corinth, the people had hung their favourite garments on the line and defended them as the only truth.  There were the fundamentalist evangelicals – oh yes, they were there in those days.  Faith is easy, it’s literal, it’s simplistic, you take what the thing says, you manipulate it to suit yourselves, you make a bit of money out of it and you shut down anyone who wants to go deeper into the human condition – hang that garment on the line.

There are those that are sexually corsetted and they bring that to the church, therefore, the faith is about gender identity and orientation and morality and a disgust about what people might be doing with each other in the privacy of their homes.  Hang that vision of Christ on the line.

There is the Christ of the family circle.  Faith is about my friends, and my kids, and my book club, and my comforts, and my church around the hockey games, and hockey practices and all the rest of it.  Culture first, church second.  Hang that on the clothesline of faith.

There is the hair/shirt crew that says God hates me, and God hates you, and, therefore, I hate you, and I am going to make your life a living hell.  And everything you do or say I am going to judge, and I’m going to go around with my grim face until you refuse to come back to the community of faith because you can’t stand to look at me.  Hang that version of Christ on the line and see what happens.

And, yet, St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, says “let that mind that was in Christ Jesus be in you.”  A call for unity.  Well, what was the mind of Jesus?  It really is hard to say when you think about it because the Church has interpreted the mind of Jesus and has hidden the mind of Jesus in its own needs since the beginning.

Now, as I see it; and I could be wrong, I believe Jesus was a poor man who felt the sting of social injustice, and I believe he was a Jewish man who endured the sting of racism and cultural rejection.  And he was an enslaved man who lived in poverty under the Roman heel.  And he was an intelligent man who heard and remembered and understood and integrated all the great things he heard until he could speak them and live them in a way that was helpful to others.  All else about Jesus is a human construct.

We are the ones who decide how to tell the story of Jesus.  We created the cycle of the gospel.  We are the ones who chose what miracles and what sayings to put into the text.  We are the ones who created the atonement theories about how good God is to us, and we are the ones who wrote our own implications.  We control the range of the gospel – allowing certain people, and views, in and keeping certain people, and views, out, and we do it because we fear death and the unknown.

In the Matthew passage we read about light determined, light with grit.  If we say we’re going to walk in the light, it’s going to cost us something.  I have to be more than that little four-year-old child who loved to smell the candlewax after the service is over – that has not enough to do with the implications of following Jesus Christ.

When the news of John the Baptist’s death reaches Jesus, it’s like seeing one of those bare-boned skulls at the edge of a desert.  You know that if you walk into that desert, this kind of death could await you because that kind of danger is real for all of us.

The call of disciples is a terrifying call because anyone who stands up from their house or their boat leaves safety and security and predictability and familiarity and follows an open-ended vision.  That takes tremendous courage – you have no idea when you’ll be swept off your feet in your mission.

It is the risking of all feelings of terror and betrayal and flight.  It’s a refusal to settle for small things.  It’s a desire to live your life to the full, with all sails filled with the winds in the steps of Jesus Christ whom you have made Lord and son of God.  The persuasive road of faith is a challenging road, it’s a road about light determined.  And these days in a culture like this, the determination of the faithful means everything.

Now, these days we are being distracted by light and we’re afraid of our own place in the culture.  We look over our shoulder at our fellow Christians wondering if they’re helping us or hurting us.  We’re strung out with the opinions of what the faith is along a clothesline, and the clothes get tied in knots with each other and everybody’s angry when the clips fall on the ground.  We’re not really speaking often about the heart of things to each other, hiding behind our denominational gatherings, and we are faced with a costly choice:  are we going to follow the one who ended up crucified on a Roman cross?  Is that where we have to go to be faithful?  I don’t know but that’s certainly what the text says.

So, we’ve looked at light discovered and witnessed its power to change a mood.  And we’ve seen light distracted and a misdirection involved and what that does to the Church, and we’ve seen light determined to make us instruments of peace and transformation forever, if we dare.  All these things, in all these things, the light remains.

Now, I haven’t seen Come From Away – everybody in the world has seen Come From Away – my wife’s seen it twice, all our kids have seen it and they come home saying, “you have to see Come From Away”, but I get the idea of Come From Away.  I get the idea that people came out of their homes, met total strangers in a time of profound crisis, and those who were involved, never, ever, ever forgot the richness of its meaning – that’s it.

In the letter to the Galatians, Peter and Paul have an argument.  Paul is the liberal, wide-open, Gentile, loving man, and Peter has been ‘got to’ by the members of the Jerusalem church and he will no longer eat with Gentiles.  He’s retrenched into the Jewish Christian setting and Paul takes him on – we are to be open to the people we meet.  The gospel is told in the street.  The gospel is told in what we do with each other, just like in the village around Come From Away.  That’s how God speaks to people, on the street, with real people in real life.  Then you take that feast back to the Church and pray about it, and write hymns about it, and sing about it, but you don’t hide in the Church expecting it to be there.  It comes from the world – engage the world, says Paul.

The People who walked in darkness have seen a great Light.  God said, ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.  It was the true light that enlightens all.  The world had its being through that light, yet it did not know it, but to all who saw the light, it gave power to become the children of God.  That light shines in the dark and the darkness cannot overcome it.  When only the light remains… it is more than enough.  More than enough.



Photo Credit:  Tobias Bjorki

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