06 October 2013

Light in the Darkness

Isaiah 58:6-12 & John 1:1-15

6th October 2013

 Not for ourselves but for the whole world were we born. This was the motto of the Liverpool Institute, where Sir Paul McCartney (the former Beatle) went to high school. Non nobis solum sed toti mundo nati. It left a deep impression upon him. No longer a secondary school today, but with McCartney’s support it has become the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts. The motto remains. McCartney incorporates these beautiful words into the beginning of his composition, the Liverpool Oratorio, which tells the story of growing up in Liverpool.[1] The opening lines are sung by children.

            Not for ourselves but for the whole world were we born. It’s not explicitly Christian, but it could be.  For the world... A world so loved by God…. We don’t exist for ourselves. We exist for our neighbors, for the wider, broader world.  

            From Isaiah’s perspective it’s what God desires, it’s what’s near and dear to God’s heart: to bring light to the dark places of the world.  And people with a heart for God have a heart, and people with a heart for God have a heart for what God desires.  This is the purpose of faith, this is the end of our worship, this is the focus of discipleship, what God wants us to do: loose the bonds of injustice—you and me, loose them, now. Undo the belts attached to the yoke oppressing God’s people and weighing them down—you and me, right now. Let the oppressed go free; break the yoke—right now, you and me. Break it. Shatter it—every yoke.  Share your resources, feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, become a place of safety for the exile, clothe the naked, and don’t ignore the needs of those nearest you, right beside you. 

            And then do you know what will happen when we engage in justice making, when we help liberate God’s children?  Do you know what will happen when we care for the needs of the afflicted and shatter every yoke? “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;…” (Isaiah 58:8). Twice Isaiah makes this point, “Your light shall rise in the darkness” (Isaiah 58:10).

            The light rises not when the darkness is gone, but rises within the darkness.  The transition from night to day doesn’t occur in the moment, but gradually.  The morning light appears in the darkness of the night and then scatters the darkness. That’s what happens when we engage in this work of light, the work of God.

            What Isaiah is also getting at here is that when we remove the yoke from our neighbors and break it, when we “satisfy the needs of the afflicted” (Is. 58:20), the healing that springs up will be the healing of the soul of the people, of the nation. It will yield the healing of the people, of the community, of the nation.  Parched places will become refreshing springs for all to share (Is. 58:11). The ruins of civilization will be rebuilt, with new foundations established providing for the future. When God’s people act this way they will be known for posterity as Repairers of the Breach—meaning the people who healed the holes and gaps of society, people who repaired ruptures and healed the deep wounds of society—people who restored the streets so that people could live in them and children play in them again with safety (Is. 58:12).

            World Communion Sunday reminds us that it’s not just our streets that need repairing (which they do), but that we as Christians have a responsibility for our sisters and brothers around the world. Why? Because through the Holy Spirit, we are connected to them.  They share our burdens (they really do) and we share theirs, particularly Christians in Syria (There was a moving article in yesterday’s Washington Post about the plight of Christians there.), or just two weeks ago we witnessed the worst terrorist attack against Christians, at worship, in Peshawar, Pakistan, or think of Coptic Christians in Egypt or the Protestant and Roman Catholics in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is integral to the health of a congregation to have ties with the global church; yes, we have a lot to offer the world; but the world has a lot, maybe more, to offer us, to teach us how to love and serve Christ, to suffer with and for the gospel, to share with us some of the joy of Christ.

            World Communion Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays of the year.  Today, we celebrate our connection to the wider world. As the world shrinks around us daily (primarily through the internet) we’re come to know in new ways that we are really one, not only as Christians, but that we share a common humanity.  “People on other continents are not merely the other, the faceless crowd ‘over there.’ They are our other, members of our extended family even though there is an ocean between us.”[2] 

            The contemporary writer and pastor Samir Selmanovic makes a crucial point in this regard. Born in the former Yugoslavia to a Muslim father and a Christian mother, but was raised an atheist, he later became a Christian.  Selmanovic echoes Isaiah with this claim: “People who lived before us and will live after us are connected to us as well.  Everything we do is linked to our past, and everything we achieve will be left in the hands of those who will come after us. To alleviate suffering in a remote corner of the world or in a remote time or future is not an act of charity anymore but an act of solidarity.”  … “Those who will be hurt or blessed by our thoughts, prayers, or actions might be completely unknown to us, but our lives will affect them, and their lives will affect us.  Whatever we do, say, prayer, or think now matters to ‘them.’”[3]  We are one.

            The 13th century Chinese poet Kauan Tao-Sheng (1262-1319) knew then what we need to remember now.  She put it this way:
            Take a lump of clay,
            Wet it, pat it,
            Make a statue of you
            And a statue of me
            Then shatter them, clatter them,
            Add some water,
            And break them and mold them
            Into a statute of you
            And a statue of me.
            Then in mine, there are bits of you
            And in you there are bits of me
            Nothing ever shall keep us apart.[4]

            “In mine, there are bits of you; in you there are bits of me.” 

            What does this sound like?  Doesn’t it sound like Communion?  Eat this bread. Share this cup. In remembrance.  Remember—not just recalling the past, but re-membeing, connecting member to member, forming a larger body. Participating in the body of Christ.  For this was Jesus’ mission and his hope for us and for the world he died to save. 

            Before his death, Jesus prayed for his disciples and for the world and said to God:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23). 

            That the world might know how much it is loved.  May it be so.

[1] Paul McCartney and Carl Davis, Liverpool Oratorio, (EMI Records, 1991).
[3] Selmanovic, 244.
[4] Kauan Tao-Sheng, untitled poem in Theodor Reik, Of Love and Lust (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1,949), 73.