Sermon: Called to be light-bearers

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Matthew 2:1-12

We made it! It’s 2021! Finally! I mean it was the strangest New Years Eve ever, but that’s how 2020 rolled. I imagine we rang in the new year in lots of creative ways. For example, I did handstands with some friends over Zoom. With the new year under our belt, we move into the season of Epiphany. 

Within the Christian tradition Epiphany celebrates the Light of divine revelation. It is a revealing of Divine presence with all people. The visit of the magi is a sign of God’s presence in all places, as they came from far away to honor a baby messiah. They were guided by a great light in the heavens to find a light-bearer. This revealing of the light-bearer we call Jesus, also revealed the shadows of the reality in which he lived. 

In addition to spending time with the magi story, I also want to reflect on what is being revealed–the shadow and the light–at this extraordinary time in history. During the past year I took a course taught by my spiritual director, learning about what she calls “the art of the ensoulment.” It was a timely course, given the onslaught of the pandemic, as we focused on deepening spiritual attunement to ourselves, the Divine and others. 

During one of our classes this fall a number of participants shared about experiencing depression in different forms. My spiritual director pointed out that we’re not just isolated, individual bodies but rather we are connected in a collective psyche, a field of awareness and shared experience. So depressive feelings or a lack of vision aren’t just a personal issue or failing. It’s a broader collective experience that we’re sharing. 

Earlier this week Pat and I also reflected on the heaviness of the collective psyche and how it manifests. It manifests in the grief we feel at the loss of loved ones and not being able to process that grief in embodied community. It manifests in the separation from dear people during the holidays. It manifests in job loss and housing insecurity. It manifests in kids being isolated from friends and education happening through a screen. It manifests in not being able to sing together. It manifests in beloved friends and neighbors moving away or in being the ones who have moved away. It manifests in hospitals filled to capacity and over 350,000 dead in this country from covid. It manifests in U.S. billionaires adding 1 trillion dollars to their collective wealth this year, while millions of people barely have enough to eat. It manifests in children locked up at the border, ripped away from their families possibly forever.

These heavy realities reveal the true nature of our economic and political life. Movement theologian Rev. Lynice Pinkard says that it’s so important for us to have a historical consciousness as people of faith so that we are not immobilized in the face of collective suffering. With historical consciousness, she says, we are not surprised by the workings of empire and the collective shadow it casts; what we’re seeing is the logical outcome of a capitalist economic order. We grieve and we rage, but we are not surprised. 

A couple weeks ago my cousin Tim Shenk, an organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign in New York state, articulated how he understands the revealing of this shadow. He highlights how working people are expected to fill in the gaps of the crumbling social safety net while billionaires get even richer.

“We donate to GoFundMe’s for our friends’ and families’ medical bills and funeral costs instead of having healthcare for all,” he writes. “We donate to local nonprofits so they can provide the services that the state used to provide (however unequally)…”

“Most of us will get a $600 check soon, which for many will go straight to credit card companies, banks or landlords. Yet not everyone will get even this pittance, so we are also encouraged that ‘if we don’t need it, we should donate it to someone who does.’

“Why does this ethic of selflessness and love for your neighbor only apply to our class, and not to the rich? No one should have the right to profit off of the misery of others.”

Then he continues to pull back the shadowy veil in naming that Amazon depends on the internet and a national transportation infrastructure it didn’t build nor does it maintain. Big Pharma took billions in public money for vaccines that we all need and they are going to keep the outrageous profits. 

“What we have to ultimately understand,” he concludes, “is that all of what they claim to own privately was only created because our class created it. Our manual and intellectual labor built their companies and their fortunes. If we understand that, we understand that they have stolen it from us, just as they stole the land from Indigenous nations and the very laborers themselves from Africa” 

“This is a moment to channel grief, desperation, anger. To stoke the small fires in our bellies. This is a moment to build, to feel, to exercise our collective power to take back what they stole from us.” 

Where Tim ends his post speaks to the hope and possibility that is also being revealed in this historic moment. It’s about stepping into kairos time with millions of other people who are seeing reality for what it is. This is a moment of great possibility. This is a moment to claim the in-breaking of the Spirit of God in our world. Just as we feel the collective heaviness and grief, there is also a collective awareness of the need for new societal structures and systems. 

It’s not a coincidence that the Black Lives Matters movement erupted as an unsettling force this past summer. People, including folks in this congregation, have been organizing and advocating for Black lives for years and years! The revolutionary eruption this summer brought into the mainstream a consciousness about racialized police brutality. This fueled the movement to defund the police and normalized conversations about what it could look like to abolish the police. 

Such conversations were seen as total pie in the sky up until last June. The chilling murder of George Floyd was the breaking point that opened up the collective consciousness in a powerful way. This breaking open made space for changes people have been building toward for years. This is epiphany, a kind of sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order. 

Now I want to revisit our reading from Matthew 2 and notice a few things revealed in that story. First, when the magi arrive they show up at Herod’s court. They show up there because they have probably come from a courtly scene in their own lands. Often seers or astrologers worked at the behest of kings. In any case they were at least from a leisure class that had time to study the sky, and obviously, travel. It is a mystery to me what knowledge they had about King Herod and his brutal rule, or if they had any inkling of how threatening, and later fatal, their search for a baby king would be. 

What is clear however is that Divine intervention shifted their loyalties away from Herod’s court after they found the little light-bearer. Their solidarity shifted from the powerful to the vulnerable. The illumination they received set them on a different path figuratively and literally. “They left for their own country by another road”

Another revelation in the story is Herod’s murderous fear of any threat to his power. The insecurity of tyrants is always a lethal threat, and we see this played out in history over and over again. Matthew’s readers, for example, would have been thinking of the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt. Just like Herod called for the murder of all male children in and around Bethlehem, Pharaoh snuffed out the lives of baby boys when he was afraid the Hebrew people would become a force strong enough to overthrow him. 

We grieve and we rage, but we are not surprised.

In more recent history, December 29 marked 130 years since the massacre of more than 300 Lakota Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee. The Ghost Dancers were a dangerous threat to the empire of the United States because they were united in their vision that another world was possible and that colonization could be defeated. Forty years after the massacre Black Elk reflected, “The tree that was to bloom just faded away, but the roots will stay alive, and we are here to make that tree bloom.” 

We grieve and we rage, but we are not surprised.

In this current moment the leadership of our empire locks children in cages due to their fear of the end of white supremacy. We grieve and we rage, but we are not surprised. 

I want to pause here for a moment. These are heavy realities. The shadows loom large. You might notice if there is anything going on in your body. Maybe a heaviness or a constriction somewhere. Maybe a relief. Maybe a need for a deep breath. I invite you to take a breath. 

We’ll take a moment to reflect in song, before I conclude the sermon. This song, “A Voice Was Heard in Ramah,” is from the Voices Together hymnal. The first two verses name the grief of innocent life lost, both in our scripture text and also in our world today. Then the final verse moves us into the call to be light-bearers – to practice peace and celebrate justice.

[sing a Voice Was Heard In Ramah]

This season of Epiphany calls us to light up the landscape of our minds and our communities and the whole social order. We are living in a time when many are recognizing the collective power we have to birth new realities and be a part of creating new systems. A light, many lights shine in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. 

We follow in the way of light-bearer Jesus and the many who went before him and who came after. We follow the light-bearers who have lived through years and decades and generations of societal upheaval and injustice. We follow in the way of light-bearers who are resilient and resourceful. And we also make a way as light-bearers to others. The good news of Epiphany is that we all carry the light within us! Maybe sometimes it’s a tea light candle or maybe it’s a roaring fire. Either way we are bearing the light. 

While working on this sermon I’ve realized I need more stories of light-bearers in my life. So I’m setting an intention for 2021 to read more of these stories. And I would definitely love your recommendations along those lines! 

One light-bearer book I picked up this week is by Indigenous scholar Nick Estes, “Our History is the Future.” Estes, of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, writes about the movement that manifested at Standing Rock in 2016 and how it is grounded in centuries of Indigenous resistance to colonization and genocide. “Indigenous resistance,” he writes, “draws from a long history, projecting itself backward and forward in time… Hidden from view to outsiders, this constant tunneling, plotting, planning, harvesting, remembering, and conspiring for freedom—the collective faith that another world is possible—is the most important aspect of revolutionary work. It is from everyday life that the collective confidence to change reality grows, giving rise to extraordinary events.”

May we follow in the light of this wisdom, and continue to grow our collective confidence that another world is possible. And may we be sustained, knowing that we do not bear the heaviness alone. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Amen.