January 20, 2013 - 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany

Epiphany 2, Year C
Sharon L. Rodgers

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

For those of us fortunate enough to be sighted, light is everything to us. Suddenly thrust into total darkness our immediate response, as often as not, is fear. Whoa, what happened? Where’d I put that flashlight? Better find a candle. Rather than pausing to listen, or to use any of our other senses to discern what’s happening, we stumble about trying to find a source of light, however limited, certain that that’s what we need to assess the situation. It’s no surprise, then, that twenty-five hundred years ago, when the portion of Isaiah we heard this morning was written, the prophet would have spoken of Israel’s vindication shining out like the dawn, her salvation like a burning torch. Light is an analogy that has worked for thousands of years in helping us humans to understand God’s power, and later, Jesus’ presence among us, as well as our responsibility as Christians. “Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory...” 

Of all the many names by which Jesus is known, I think my favorite is the light of the world. Of the many areas of physics I was privileged to share with my students over the years, I think I enjoyed teaching about light most of all. I don’t know which of these preferences came first, but I feel certain they’re related.

What we know as visible light is actually a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic radiation is energy on the move, oscillating electric fields that produce oscillating magnetic fields that produce oscillating electric fields ad infinitum. Nothing in the universe can travel faster than these waves. Depending on their frequency, they can travel through solids, liquids, gases, and perhaps best all, through absolutely nothing, that is through the total vacuum of the vast expanse of interstellar space. It is this particular trait that allows the sun’s energy to travel 98 million miles from the sun to us, where it supports life as we know it on this fragile earth, our island home. Light waves come in many frequencies. Lower in energy than our visible spectrum are infrared, or heat waves. Below those are the microwaves that cook our food. Still lower in frequency are the radio waves that let us listen to our favorite team on the radio while driving the freeway, or watch them on television while safely at home. Higher in energy than our visible range are ultraviolet rays, which are part of the visible range for many insects, and beyond those x-rays, gamma rays, and cosmic rays. 

As I’ve thought about it over the years, I’ve found that understanding the properties of light has been very helpful to me in understanding our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Consider reflection. One of my favorite light demonstrations was one my colleague and I referred to as the H. W. Bush Thousand Points of Light demo. In this demonstration we taped together three mirrors in a triangle, with a mirror below and one above slightly offset to allow air inside. John had scratched a hole in the backing of one of the side mirrors so that it was possible to look through that mirror into the inside of the triangle. We would put a lighted candle in the middle of the mirrors. When our students looked through the opening in the side mirror, they saw literally hundreds if not exactly a thousand candle flames inside, as the reflections of the actual flame seemed to go on in all directions forever. Hopefully that’s how we as a congregation appear to the larger world. As individuals we at once reflect Christ’s light as well as that of each other, producing countless points of light originating from that single source burning at the heart of our community. 

In addition to reflecting, or bouncing off of surfaces, light also refracts, or bends, when it travels through a surface from one medium to another. That’s because the speed of light changes when it passes through such an interface. In the same way the path of a vehicle will pull to the right if it’s right front tire suddenly passes from a paved surface into soft mud, light that passes from outer space into the atmosphere, or from air to glass, to name just a couple examples, will bend. Because different frequencies of light, which in the visible spectrum we observe as different colors of light, bend different amounts, light spreads out when passing through a boundary, into what is commonly called the rainbow. What a lovely reminder that while we are all not only capable of but responsible for spreading the light of Christ throughout the world, we each have our own frequency, our own color, our own gifts by which we do that. There are varieties of gifts, Paul reminds us, but the same Spirit; varieties of services, but the same Lord; varieties of activities, but the same God who activates all of them in everyone. Just as sunlight can be spread across the sky as a rainbow, we share the love of God in a host of different ways. 

With that fact in mind, it’s important to remember that while we tend to think of light only as the visible portion of the spectrum, those are only a tiny fraction of the wavelengths that actually exist. Remember those invisible microwaves I spoke of earlier, as well as the radio waves, and x-rays. Their uses took much longer for us to discover than the many uses we have for visible light. We need to be constantly aware that we and those around us may have gifts that are not immediately obvious, that may take much time and energy to develop, but which hold tremendous potential if only we have the insight to discover them. We need to keep in mind not only that we each have our own unique gifts, our own frequencies that contribute to the overall spectrum of light we Christians produce, but also that no gift is too small, too inconsequential to be of value. Whether it’s teaching, preaching, healing, feeding the hungry, singing in the choir, volunteering at the welcome desk or at a warming center, each of us has something to offer to the larger community. Moreover, sometimes it’s the less noticeable lights, if you will, that mean the most. 

I’ll never forget a night during the summer of 1974 when my brother and I were camping at Crater Lake. We’d had a great day hiking down to the lake and taking a side road away from the rim to see the pinnacles, after which we had set up camp for the night. Some time after darkness had fallen a tremendous thunder storm rolled in, definitely one of the most powerful I’ve ever experienced, but then we were at 6000 feet huddled in a tent. The storm did eventually subside and we fell asleep. At some point after midnight Ken awakened me, saying you have to see this. I joined him outside and honestly, I have never ever seen the stars as bright as they were that night. With the air crystal clear after the storm, and not a single artificial light anywhere near us, it really did seem like we could reach out and pluck a star from the sky. At a moment like that it was easy to understand why the ancient philosophers believed there was all manner of wisdom to be gained from studying the heavens. That wisdom, I believe, came not from the stars themselves, but from the divine revelation that came to those wise men in the periods of quiet contemplation they spent staring at the sky. 

There are countless other moments like that night at Crater Lake in my memory bank - sitting by a campfire on the banks of the Metolius, standing on the deck of the Agios Georgos watching the sun set over the Aegean, when the beauty of the moment seemed to be almost more than I could bear. It is no accident after all, that lovers choose to dine by candlelight, and go for walks by the light of the moon. We seem to intuitively understand that not just our pupils but our very being open up when the light is dim and the world is quiet. It seems, paradoxically, that as much as we crave light, and as much as our society seems to emphasize that bigger, brighter, louder, and flashier are better, we see each other and ourselves most clearly when all the extraneous lights go out, and only a faint but all important central light shines among us. 

There’s another side to darkness, of course, which brings us full circle, back to the darkness of fear, but not a darkness born of a power failure or the absence of the sun, but darkness that is the result of unspeakable tragedy, unbearable sorrow, a darkness so intense we can’t imagine ever escaping it. We sit frozen, not sure how to go on, or even if there is any point in doing so. We may deliberately avoid the bright lights of the rest of the world because we feel we just can’t bear them. But then it happens. Like the single candle that is carried into church on Easter Eve that, dim as it is, still provides enough light for people in the procession to find their way into the sanctuary, something rekindles our hope. Maybe it’s the touch of another’s hand, a smile from across a room, simple eye contact at a key moment. However it happens, light enters our world once again. Like the light of the paschal candle that spreads first to two other candles, then to two more, on and on until the lights come on throughout the church, something reminds us that we are a resurrection people, followers of the one true Light, the Light who conquered the darkness even of death itself. Whether it’s our own light that needs rekindling or that of someone close to us, there is no doubt in my mind that coming here, surrounding ourselves with people whose souls are on fire with the light of Christ is how to find our own light once again. It usually takes time, and like a candle in the wind, it may flicker at first, but given any sort of opportunity, it will catch and it will hold. Once it does, we are called to carry that light into our broken and desperately darkened world. We are called to let others experience first hand the light of Christ. We must let them know that they may think there is no hope but there is. They may feel like they’ll never be joyful again but they will. We must show the world that the Light of Christ, like light itself, can penetrate anything and nothing and change it forever. Most of all, we need to remember that no light is too dim, no kindness too small to make a difference in a hurting world. 

“It is a scientific fact that the light cast by the glow of a single burning match can penetrate the darkness of a clear night and be seen for a distance of more than one mile. It is a spiritual truth that the light radiated by the love of one human being can penetrate the darkness of fear and be experienced throughout the universe at a distance that transcends measurement.” 1

1 This quote comes from a James Cloutier poster, 1986.