Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Duty to Shine

Olivia Hamilton
The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Year A

One of the things I find difficult about campus ministry is the disconnect between the academic calendar and our liturgical calendar. For example, with a six week long break that splits up Advent and Epiphany, it’s hard to trace the narrative arc that moves us as a community of believers through the darkness of waiting in Advent and into the light of Christ’s arrival in Epiphany. There is a certain continuity and buildup that seems to be interrupted during those weeks when we are away in January. But for me, this year, these seasons have been especially profound, and I wanted to take a minute to slow down, to back up, and to think about the implications of Advent and Epiphany, and the place where they touch. And as I do this, I also want to hold in mind that in just a few weeks, our Lenten journey toward the Cross will begin.

Back in Advent, I was having tea with one of our community members, Andrew, whom some of you may know. Andrew and I were reflecting on current events, thinking and talking about how the symbols and signs of Advent and how they seemed to be speaking so clearly to the moment we found ourselves in: the waiting, the uncertainty of the political climate, and the hope that emerges, slowly, slowly, in the midst of the darkest season of the year. He shared with me a quote by a man named Alfred Delp that had been passed on from a friend. I did not know who Alfred Delp was at the time, but later learned that he was a German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned in Berlin and hanged by the Nazis on Candlemas, February 2nd of 1945. The quote struck a deep chord with me, and I went home and immediately purchased the book where the quote appears. The book is called Advent of the Heart, and is a collection of Delp’s Advent meditations, written in Tegel Prison in the weeks leading up to his execution, and smuggled out of the prison by being tucked inside the hems of his dirty laundry. Miraculously when you stop to consider what sorts of threats were being imposed at this time, these little scraps and sermons not only survived the journey out of the prison, but were copied, distributed and later published, to our great benefit.

Here is the quote that Andrew read to me that left such an impression, and it comes from Delp’s sermon, Figures of Advent, written in Tegel Prison in 1944. He writes:

“The sounds of devastation and destruction, the cries of self-importance and arrogance, and weeping of despair and powerlessness still fill the world. Yet, standing silently, all along the horizon, are the eternal realities with their age-old longing. The first gentle light of the glorious abundance to come is already shining above them. From out there the first songs are ringing out…They do not yet form a song or a melody…it is all still too far off.” Delp continues, “Still, it is happening. This is today. And tomorrow the angels will relate loudly and jubilantly what has happened, and we will know it and be blessed if we have believed in Advent.”

You’re probably wondering, why on this fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, I am beginning my sermon with this Advent imagery, and if you are, it’s a fair question. One reason is that Alfred Delp’s writings, which I have really only plunged into in the last few weeks, have given me a deeper appreciation for the ways in which our liturgical seasons reveal “eternal realities,” or things which are always true, no matter the month. Delp’s book is called Advent of the Heart, because he firmly believes that all of life is Advent, and that the symbols and themes of the Advent season speak to us in December, but also in March, in October, in June. All of life is Advent, he says, and I would add, that all of life is Epiphany, all of life is Easter, if we cultivate an awareness and an appreciation of the eternal realities, as Delp calls them, of light and dark, of death and renewal, of promise and fulfillment, that each liturgical season points toward. In the same way, while it helps us to mark time and to make meaning by traveling through these seasons with predictability each year, I think single hours and moments of our lives can bespeak these age-old truths and the tensions they represent.

I find that each season, however I experience it, challenges me to discern where God is showing up in my life.  And Alfred Delp’s writings, penned at such a perilous political time, connect me to the eternal realities of Advent. They point to the ways that God is showing up to me and to us, as God did to Alfred Delp,  even and especially during this season of political turmoil, amid the erasure of the values of humility, kindness and justice that we heard Micah champion so compellingly in our lesson last week.

God is showing up in the ways that Christians all over the country and the world are standing with our Muslim neighbors and saying “not in our name” to the implicit and explicit violence being carried out against them. God is showing up as God always does, in the words of our scriptures week after week, and especially this evening as we are reminded in the words of the prophet Isaiah that our God loosens the bond of injustice, lets the oppressed go free, and desires that we do the same.

Even in the midst of what feels like an Advent time in our country, a time of darkness and waiting, I can see the in-breaking of the light of Christ all around us, in what I would call Epiphany moments, declaring that we are blessed if we can hold fast to the promise of liberation, of abundance, and of fulfillment even in the midst of bleak times.

The texts that we hear tonight all take up this theme of illumination, and especially about what it means to be light-bearers, or disciples of Christ, in a dark world. The texts especially seem to hone in on the difference between knowledge and action when it comes to following Christ. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes that he “does not proclaim the mystery of God in lofty words or wisdom,” but instead seeks to follow the wisdom of God, which is totally unlike the wisdom of the rulers of the world.

I think there is an unsettling trend in our current culture, and one that I find myself participating in, at times. Maybe it is what Paul was noting back when he addressed the people of Corinth. It seems that we mistake knowledge for action. As an example from my own life, but one I imagine some of you can relate to, there are days when I find myself practically glued to my smartphone, refreshing the news feed over and over, while also listening with one ear to the radio and texting with friends about the day’s unfolding events. This often contributes to a sense of overwhelm and hopelessness.

Yes, it is good to know what’s happening in the world, and especially not to turn one’s attention away from our neighbor’s suffering. And yet, simply absorbing information about the news of the day, in its increasing complexity and distortion, does not a good disciple make. As we were reminded last week, God desires us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. These are verbs of action, and gestures that require us to put something of ourselves on the line and to risk getting it wrong, over and over again, knowing that the stakes are too high to hide out.

Our Gospel tonight is a familiar one to most of us, and it also seems to me to be about this relationship between discipleship and action. As Paul reiterates when he says that God has bestowed gifts of the Spirit on each of us, Jesus tells us as his disciples that we are each the salt of the earth and the light of the world, which ought not to be hidden. Illumining that which is obscured and shining a light on suffering, being salt and refusing to let our flavor be lost for the sake of blending in.

I think about how Alfred Delp made of his life, and yes, even his death, a window that the light of Christ could shine through. He stressed that his friends and neighbors must stay alert and ready to act, reminding them through his words and actions that following Christ is not always smooth sailing, but often requires us to navigate choppy, brackish waters. It sometimes requires us to command attention with our zeal and our zest for justice, and mercy.

Father Delp was executed on February 2, 1945. But four years earlier, on that very day, he wrote a sermon for Candlemas in which he wrote extensively about light, and about candles. Candles, he wrote, “give a peaceful, reticent, but constant shining. [They give] light at the cost of [their] own substance, so that they are consumed in the process. Anyone who wants to comprehend Christ’s message of light,” he continues, “must comprehend this one thing: the mission, the duty to shine, to draw others, to seek, to heal, to do good at the cost of one’s own substance.”

The amount of information we take in on any given day, through various channels, is astounding. Delp wrote in prison, cut off from the news of the day, but able to convey these truths, able to be true salt and light. His discipleship both responded to the political climate he was embedded in, but it also rooted itself in the age-old reality of light emerging from the darkness.

Our discipleship may not look extreme or heroic, but we are all, no doubt, called to act, through the means we have available to us. We are not all activists, but each of us have gifts that can be deployed to do good. After all, Jesus doesn’t seem to be looking for disciples with the most sophisticated political analysis, Jesus is looking for those who can carry out his mission of reconciliation.

Like Alfred Delp, many of us probably feel as though we are living in an Advent season. However, the task before us seems to be to participate in, and call attention to, Epiphany moments. These moments prompt us to realize that God is with us, here and now, and that even if we can’t quite make out that light in the distance, we can ourselves be light to others, helping to illumine pathways forward.


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