A Movement of Light
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
January 7, 2018 Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Spoiler alert! I am about to describe a scene that takes place in the movie “Freedom Song” that we will be watching here this afternoon. I hope you will come see it anyway, especially if you have felt discouraged about the world lately and powerless to do anything about it.
The movie holds out the hope that it is possible for ordinary people with no weapons but the truth and courage of their convictions to overcome oppressive forces of hatred, injustice and violence. The movie shines as an epiphany and gives us ways to shine this little light of ours so that we may be an epiphany to others.
I have watched this film many times, and I still am deeply moved by a scene toward the end, so I am not worried that I will spoil it if I describe it—in fact, I think it will enhance your appreciation when you see it.
The setting is a small town in Mississippi in the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement is just starting to come into that state. An organizer from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC has come down from Chicago. Daniel Wall is a gentle, quiet school teacher, and not at all the inspiring rabble-rouser that one high school student hoped he would be.
Now the two of them are in a jail cell together, along with other SNCC organizers and local high school students. The young man, named Owen, is loudly complaining that what they have done has amounted to nothing. The Woolworth’s lunch counter, the library, the bus station are still segregated, and now they are in jail for walking out of a high school assembly and staging a march to City Hall. They know the police could take them out and shoot them or let the Ku Klux Klan lynch them as has happened to many in their situation before, and they have no hope of paying bail. Owen’s anger is fueled by fear.
Daniel Wall quietly tells Owen that it was not all for nothing. He tells him that people in New Orleans have heard about the students’ arrest, and decided to come to their town and continue the nonviolent action they have begun. Daniel explains that he is there for a similar reason. He had seen news stories about the first sit-ins at lunch counters and it moved him to volunteer with SNCC.
He said, “They lit a flame and I saw the light from that flame a thousand miles away… When you walked out of that school, you didn’t just make a march, you picked up a torch. Now other folks have seen your light, and they are coming here to carry it on because you can’t right now, and if they go to jail, too, other folks will pick up their torch. So you are not on your own, Owen, you are part of something bigger than you. You are part of the Movement.”
This is the way epiphany works. It is what we are celebrating today. We are part of the epiphany movement. We are each here because we saw a light. Somewhere in our life, we saw someone who was shining, who was holding up a torch in the name of Jesus or God or love or peace or justice or Sunday School or youth group or choir, and we were drawn to that light, and here we are today.
The people whose light we saw were shining because they had seen someone else’s light, and seeing it, they became radiant themselves. And those people had seen others before them, and on and on back to the Magi following the star to the young Jesus, and back hundreds of years before that in unbroken generations to the prophet Isaiah who said,
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you and his glory will appear over you…. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”
Isaiah was talking to people like Owen. The children of Israel had not been in jail, but they had been in captivity in Babylon, and had come home to find their temple destroyed and their homes burned and their orchards uprooted. They were complaining that all their faith in God had amounted to nothing but suffering.
Isaiah said to them, “Lift up your eyes and look around.” They looked and saw the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness does not overcome, and by the power of that light they rebuilt their homes and their nation.
The Zoroastrian Magi studied the skies and waited and watched on their towers so when the star rose in the east they saw it, and the hope in that light carried them across hundreds of miles of desert, through the danger of King Herod’s court, out to the streets of Bethlehem where they saw the light in Jesus and rejoiced.
Jesus healed and comforted, he uplifted and fed the poor, he blessed the peacemakers and the meek, he stood up to oppressors and called for justice, he preached about love, about the life that does not die, about the Holy Spirit that wells up in us, and people heard and felt and saw his light, and they in turn were radiant. His followers shone everywhere they went, and churches formed around them, and the movement grew and grew. Persecutions came, jail cells or crosses where they could no longer hold up their torch, but others picked them up because they had seen and become radiant in turn.
Jesus said that if his followers were to fall silent the stones themselves would shout out their praise. (Luke 19:40) The light we see in Jesus is as old as the universe—older, for it brought this universe into being. It has filled and moved all things, held together all that cohered, evolved and changed all toward higher levels of organization and life and eventually consciousness, and brought life out of death, forming new stars and planets and living beings out of the old.
It is this force speaking through Jesus in The Gospel of Thomas saying, “There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world…. I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all come. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there…. The realm of God will not come by watching for it…. Rather, it is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.” from the Gospel of Thomas, 24, 70, 77 and 113
Lift up your heads and look around because the movement of God’s light is here. Look, and then you shall see and be radiant, your heart will thrill and rejoice.
What I find most moving about the Magi is that they could have stayed in their tower thrilling and rejoicing at the radiant light of hope they saw, and they could have kept the contents of their treasure chests for their own security and comfort, but they chose instead to undertake the dangerous journey through a dark, cold world, following nothing but a star and their dreams and a hunch of what they meant. They acted on their beliefs. They made the sacrifices required to share their gifts.
We are here because we saw the light of Christ’s love in others who dared to follow where their star led, who kept going through whatever desert wildernesses and dark nights of the soul they suffered, who kept offering their gifts, who kept shining in whatever way the Spirit gave them to shine.
Epiphanies are not for us alone. They recruit us to a Movement, the same movement that Martin Luther King Jr. led, and Jesus led, and Isaiah led, and Moses led. Epiphanies transform us by the light of God they reveal so that we will transform the world around us to be more like God’s realm of mercy, justice and peace. Let us see and be radiant and go out into our homes and into the beloved community of this town and into this divided and endangered world and shine in every way we can so that others see our light and are inspired to shine their own.
Let us pray in silence, looking for the light within our deepest heart, and opening to be led to new ways to shine…