Shining Christ’s Light
A Sermon Preached at the Episcopal Church at Yale
by Brandon Chambers, MY ’21
5 Epiphany A – February 9, 2020
Let us pray –
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts,
Be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
In Jamaica, we celebrate the month of February as Reggae Month. The month is populated with events and activities – including several conferences and concerts – to celebrate the history of our unique island music, which took the world by storm in the latter half of the twentieth century. We also pay tribute to the many pioneering and legendary singers, musicians, and producers who perfected the sound, the most famous of whom being the great Bob Marley, for whom we celebrated what would have been his 75th birthday last Thursday. Bob’s music became immensely popular in the UK, Europe, Japan, and pockets of this country, with his universal messages of liberation and love.
Bob’s music came to me during my first semester at this institution, when night would fall earlier and earlier and I had my first experiences of homesickness and loneliness. One song from Bob’s Exodus album stands out in my mind – a gem by the name of So Much Things to Say. Based on the title alone, you get the impression that Bob had a lot to get off his chest. If you listen to the So Much Things to Say, you’ll notice that each line is really four lines of lyrics condensed into one measure, with impeccable flow. My favourite line in the song comes after Bob recalls several heroes (including Jesus) who were persecuted and martyred. With these leaders in mind, Bob exhorts,
So, don’t you forget, no youth,
who you are and where you stand in the struggle.
If I had a better singing voice I’d sing it for you, but I won’t put you through that agony.
Brothers and sisters, it is no coincidence that in this country, we celebrate the month of February as Black History Month. During this month, we reflect on and give thanks for the lives of those ancestors who suffered under enslavement in the Americas and the transatlantic trade in enslaved persons, and their legacies.
We also give thanks for the cultural and religious practices and manifestations which the enslaved and oppressed communities created to contemplate and escape their material conditions. These cultural resources took the form of sublime music, dance, food, visual arts, and (of course) sport. These cultural forms spread far beyond their initial domains to the ends of the earth. They continue to find new life and meaning from generation to generation.
And of course, we in the Church owe hearty thanks for the impassioned forms of liturgy and religious traditions. Black communities created these forms of worship, homiletics, and theology to rationalise their material circumstances through God. With faith and hope, they were able to envision a future of justice and equality.
We are also called, particularly during this month, to remember and tell the histories of the great men and women who laboured for the cause of righteousness and freedom. These individuals – civil and religious leaders and activists, musicians and artists, scholars and writers, washerwomen and freedom riders – these men and women struggled and fought to undermine the systems which oppressed them and their communities. We also remember those other saints who worked to “loose the chains of injustice” but who have been left out of the annals of history. As the psalmist writes,
their righteousness stands fast for ever,
they will hold up their head with honor.
We give thanks for all these noble individuals and it is because of their sacrifice that we live in a better world today.
Friends, let us now turn to the reading from the Book of Isaiah. We understand Isaiah to comprise three chronological sections. Our reading for today comes from the third segment – which takes place in the period after the exile in Babylon, when the people of Judah had returned home from captivity. The exile constituted a time of refinement of religious practices, both in order to account for their captivity and in order to return to the path from which they had strayed.
Despite this being a period of religious purification, it is clear that the author is writing in a period of deep spiritual crisis. The people cry out to God
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
To them, they seem to be doing all the right things. Their spiritual practices are all in order. They have kept the fast day, religiously even. They have checked all the supposed boxes on the list of worship. In other words, they are putting in all the right inputs, but just cannot seem to get the desired outputs. It is as if, somehow, the God-machine has malfunctioned.
It is in light of this crisis that God sends the prophet to deliver a wake-up call to the people.
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
The wake-up call is exactly this – that the people, in spite of their commitment to worship and religion, have turned away from God and his precepts. The author makes it clear that they have failed to practise righteousness and have forsaken the ordinance of God. And what was their act of forsaking? The Lord is clear to them when he says
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Friends, what Isaiah is saying here is that the people have themselves become the oppressor. They have become Babylon in all but name. Bob would say that they have forgotten who they are and where they stand in the struggle. As a result, no matter how much they ‘fast’, they fail to realise God’s blessing.
They have failed to recognize that what God has asks of them is not to fast in abstraction. God does not care for their worship and religion if done in a vacuum. Rather God calls on the people to fast rightly
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke
Then, and only then,
your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Friends, I think that God, through the readings for today, is speaking directly to us in our present moment, in light of this month. If we take the words of Isaiah seriously, the prophet is not merely using descriptive language. It is not sufficient to say that there have been certain individuals who have fought against oppression and injustice and that we merely lift them up and admire them. Rather, I take Isaiah to be using targeted moral language – that we ought to stand up for justice; that it is not permissible for any of us to side with the oppressor, regardless of how religious we are in our practices. To do otherwise is to live in sin.
Rather, Jesus calls us to be “the light of the world … to let our light shine before others, so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven.” We in the Church, the body of Christ, are called to reflect God’s true light. This is the actual Lux et Veritas which we are to shine on this campus, in our communities, and in the world. For, brothers and sisters, when we reflect on Jesus’ exhortation in the Gospel reading, and on the fact that it was God who ordained that there shall be light in the beginning, we recognize that the light that we are called to let shine isn’t really our light at all. Rather, we are called to be vessels for the light of God, such that others may see us and admire the goodness of God our Father.
St. Justin Martyr puts it this way. He says
“… we have been taught, and are convinced, and do believe, that God accepts those only who imitate the excellences which reside in Him, temperance, and justice, and philanthropy, and as many virtues as are peculiar to a God who is called by no proper name.”
We are called to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in this world, to fight against division and oppression in our communities, and “to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world” in worship, witness, and work.
In this ECY community, we are active participants in this work. Whether it be in our Undoing Racism working group, or at our monthly Chapel on the Green ministry, our passion for justice inspires what we do (and it is affixed at the top of our weekly newsletter).
Brothers and sisters, by no means am I saying this will be light work. To quote the band Coldplay, “Nobody said it was easy.” We are called to engage in countercultural work, in the same way that it was countercultural in Jesus’ time. We might also feel, and justifiably so, that we might not be cut out for the task at hand. We might ask ourselves, “Who am I that God should require this work of me?” Friends, I am often reminded that Jesus himself asked, “Let this cup pass from me.” But brothers and sisters, I am confident that once we make the decision to let God’s light shine through us, he will be with us every step of the way, to neither leave us nor forsake us, and to comfort us.
So, friends, what say you? Will you “serve your own interest” and hide your lamp under a bushel. Or will you shine God’s light through you and, as Bob would say, “get up, stand up for your rights and don’t give up the fight?”