The Light Within Us

Epiphany 1 – Year A
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Some of the things we do… are things we do in private… to be accountable to ourselves… for example… Matthew 6:5-6 instructs us… that when we pray… we’re not to be like those who wear false masks… and pray on street corners so we can be seen by others… but when we pray… to go into our room… and shut the door… and pray without drawing attention to ourselves… and God who sees in secret… will take care of us…

And some of the things we do… we do in public… to be accountable to others… for example… in Joshua 24… Joshua and the people Israel make a covenant together… and Joshua puts a large stone under the oak tree in God’s sanctuary… and warns the people… that that stone has heard all the promises that the people made… and if they deal falsely with God… the stone will be a witness…

There are other public actions… when a couple marries… they gather family and friends to share in their joy… and love… and celebration… but also so that there are witnesses to the vows they make… so that there is accountability… both of the couple to their community… and of the community to the couple… in the marriage rite… the gathered community agrees… publicly…  to uphold the two persons in their marriage… because being married can be hard work… and for the couple… there is power in the public speaking of their marriage vows…

So for example… when I apologize to Joel for something I’ve said or done… it’s an acknowledgment that I may have spoken hastily and without thinking… or out of anger… or an acknowledgement that I acted selfishly… but if I were to post that on FaceBook… there’d be a wider audience… it’d be an even more powerful public act… it’s like testifying… either the religious kind or the legal kind… there is public speaking… and there is public hearing…

And there is mutual accountability in baptism… the person being baptized makes six public vows… and their sponsors and those who witness their vows… commit to do all they can… to support that person in their life in Christ… and while the person being baptized isn’t expected to be “a perfect Christian…” neither are they expected to take those vows lightly… without intending to follow through on them…

The sacrament of baptism… is an outward and visible sign… of an inward and spiritual grace… and part of that grace… is a Truth which yearns to be expressed… which clamors to be heard… and this clamoring is captured in the story from Palm Sunday… when Jesus was on the path down from the Mount of Olives… and the gathered community began to praise God loudly… and some of the Pharisees said… Shhhh… and Jesus said that if they were silent… the very stones would shout out…

And another part of that inward and spiritual grace… is the ability to hear God calling us to that which is more than we are… it’s the ability to hear God calling us to unboundedness… calling us from death to life… but we cannot truly hear that call to more… indeed we don’t need to… if we believe that we are self-sufficient unto ourselves… ] if a tree believes that it has no need of the soil in which it is rooted… it will die… and as Jesus said in John 5:4-5… just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine… neither can you unless you abide in me…

It can be a hard thing to accept our dependence on God… I struggle with that sometimes… but I wonder if it’s even harder to accept our dependence on each other… because almost all the voices around us… tell us that we ought to be able to do it on our own… that sink or swim we do it on our own… that we just need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps… ] but that is a lie… we do nothing in a vacuum… and 1Corinthians 12 reminds us that the eye cannot say to the hand… I have no need of you… and the head can’t say to the feet… I don’t need you either

Michael Toy… a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary… wrote that in the 1950s… Dr. Ed Wilson discovered something fascinating about ants… when an ant dies… the other ants take it to the colony’s trash pile… Dr. Wilson hypothesized… that the signal that an ant was dead… was the smell of the pheromone… oleic acid… so to confirm his hypothesis… he dabbed a living ant with this pheromone… and immediately another worker ant grabbed the living ant… and hauled it off to the trash pile… where the ant remained as it cleaned itself… and then resumed its life in the colony… but by remaining isolated… the living ants acted like they were dead… and one researcher affectionately called them “zombie ants…”

Further study revealed that throughout their lives… ants actually produce some pheromones that indicate life… and other pheromones that indicate death… but when an ant actually dies… the smell of death overpowers the smell of life… and that’s how the other ants know when to bury their dead comrades…

And while there are no actual ants in today’s readings… there’s powerful good news in them… the problem is… that many of us act like the zombie ants… we think we’re already dead… like the exiles in Isaiah… like the excluded Gentiles in Acts… and like John the Baptizer… we doubt our place in God’s kingdom… and like the ants… we drag ourselves off to the graveyard… letting the glow… of the light… and life… and love of God fade…

I wonder what it was like for John to baptize Jesus… for the one who needed to be baptized… to baptize the one through whom… baptism existed… for the complete… to allow the incomplete to do not something done in secret… but a very public thing… a sacrament which revealed something even greater… not only the affirmation of both Jesus’ humanity… and his divinity… but the voice of God… the voice that opened the heavens… and affirmed Jesus’ beloved-ness… affirms our beloved-ness too… and we too are drawn into the death and life of Christ… the being… who was both human and divine…

Some of you may have heard this Chasidic story… about a rabbi quizzing his students… He asked, “How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends… and the day begins?” One of the students suggested… “Day begins when… from a distance… you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep.” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another student asked… “Is it when you can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?” Again the answer was, “No.” “Please tells us the answer then,” said the students. “It is,” said the rabbi, “when you can look into the face of other human beings and you have enough light in you… to recognize them as your brothers and sisters. Up until then, it is night, and darkness is still with us.”

So you see… baptism is a kind of resistance to the world’s darkness… to the world’s message of self-reliance… it’s both an acknowledgment of our imperfect vulnerability… and of the community’s acknowledgement to support us… with God’s help… and the Truth that clamors to be heard… is expressed in the words of Isaiah… and the ministry of justice that Jesus lived and breathed… a bruised reed he will not break… and a dimly burning wick he will not quench… these words convey what must be our determined willingness… to protect the weak and outcast… so let us… with God’s help… and by the light within us… recognize all other human beings… as our brothers and sisters… and dispel the darkness…

Mike+

About the author: The Rev. Mike Wernick

The Rev. Mike Wernick is a second-career Episcopal priest who grew up in a Reform Jewish family, and who believes that diversity was never intended to be divisive. He serves as the Ecumenical and Inter-religious Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan and the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan, and on the ELCA's North/West Lower Michigan Synod’s Task Force on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, "Open Hearts, Open Church."