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A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota
February 5th, 2017
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
One of my favorite spiritual stories is actually not a story from Christian holy scripture. It is a part of the oral tradition of the tribes that occupy the rainy southeastern islands and coastlands of Alaska and British Columbia – a story about how light came into the world and how Raven came to be black. But, it is also a story about power and its corrupting influence. I love this story so much I actually have a scene from it permanently inscribed on my arm. The story changes some with each telling, so I apologize if this is not how you heard it.
Raven, the creator, the trickster, was cunning and shrewd. After creating the world, he was quite pleased with himself. But, the world was still very dark. The people of the world longed for light beyond the fires of their simple homes. But, the sun, the bright burning orb of light that gives brightness to the day, had not yet been placed in the sky. In fact, the sun was in the possession of a great and powerful chief. The sun was his, and he kept it securely stowed away in his longhouse, sealed up in a cedar box. Raven was not pleased with this. He was jealous of the chief and wanted the sun for himself. So, being the trickster that he was, he conspired to steal it. The only thing the chief was more proud of than the sun was his beloved daughter, his only child. She was his pride and joy, but he longed for her to one day have a son so that he could pass on his mantle of chief. The Raven knew this, and one day while the chief’s daughter was at the river filling her spruce root baskets with water, Raven transformed himself into a hemlock needle and drifted down to rest, floating at the top of her basket of water. It was the heat of the day and she had been working hard and so she drank deeply to quench her thirst and thus she took Raven into her belly and she was pregnant.
9 months later she produced a son to a very delighted chief. This was the heir he had been waiting for, and he began to dote on the boy. As Raven grew, carefully disguised as the chief’s grandson, he became accustomed to the fine living of his grandfather’s house. He became spoiled – eating what he pleased, playing when he pleased, and not having to work for anything. In the Chief’s house nothing was off limits save for the cedar box at the back under the Chief’s bed. The Chief warned Raven, if he were to open that box, the punishment would be as swift as it would be severe. One day the Chief left the home to hunt and the Chief’s daughter was out gathering bark for baskets and the Raven knew that that this was his chance. So, after waiting to be sure that both were gone, he crept to the back of the house, found the cedar box and opened it. The pure radiance of the round light was splendid. The boy pulled it out of its box and began to roll it around the house, so enamored of it he was. He was captivated by it. He was so entranced by his new toy that he did not notice when the Chief unexpectedly returned. With a shout, the chief rushed at the boy. In a flash, the boy transformed back into raven, who at this time was still splendidly white and shiny. He took the orb in his mouth and began to fly for the smoke hole at the top of the long house. But, he was too large – his days of decadent living and unfettered eating had made him too big to fit through the opening in the roof and he became stuck fast. Immediately the Chief made a roaring fire. The smoke was choking and suffocating and immediately the Raven’s feathers were covered with soot and he became black as night. As he wriggled and writhed in the smoke, he finally jerked clear of the hole. But as he did so, the sun slipped from his beak and rose into the sky where it gives light to the world to this day.
The people who tell this story are the first people to live in this country, and their myth is instructive to us who are descended from those who came here much later as conquerors and takers. Beware the powerful who hoard precious resources. Beware of jealousy and of striving to have what our neighbors have. Beware the corrupting influence of power – the way we can become enamored of and lulled into a false sense of security by the largesse of the powerful. Remember that the light belongs to no one. It must shine for all.
I find this story instructive too for us as followers of the way of Jesus! As we heard last Sunday, the radical call of our holy scriptures is at all times to “Do Justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” Ours is a faith that demands the counterintuitive often unsafe practices of resisting the powerful, welcoming the stranger, and speaking truth to principalities of this world. Yet, as the oft-lauded Anglican evangelical (at least in evangelical circles – not oft-quoted in Episcopalian circles), John Stott once wrote,
“Too often the church has turned away from this challenge and sunk into a bourgeois, conformist respectability. At such times it is almost indistinguishable from the world, it has lost its saltness, its light is extinguished and it repels all idealists. … Only when the Christian community lives by Christ’s manifesto will the world be attracted and God be glorified”
You see, Jesus called us salt and light. Jesus tells us this morning, we are already these things – they are already part and parcel of who we are – a blessed if rigorous and daunting calling. Yet too often we accommodate ourselves to power and respectability. Too often the church’s witness, your witness and mine, has dimmed because of the bushel basket of fear. Light must shine – and you my friends are light. Your essential nature is to season the world with the flavor of God, and to shed God’s light wherever you go, dispelling hatred, revealing half-truths and alternate facts for the lies that they are, enabling others to see their own inherent saltiness and light. This is, as Paul writes to the church at Corinth in this morning’s second lesson, our mission, to reveal God’s wisdom “secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.”
Jesus is calling us this morning to remain faithful to this wisdom, to reveal it in our lives and actions, to make it known as salt brings forth hidden flavor and light expands the range of our sight. And, what is this faithfulness? Isaiah wonders this as well – what is faithfulness – what constitutes righteous worship and faithful fasting in the sight of our Lord?
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
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.”
To live faithfully, to welcome refugees, to speak out against state sponsored violence, to advocate for the Muslim neighbor – to protest and write letters and make calls and show up at Project Home in solidarity with the homeless – these things will not always sit easy with power. In fact, the church’s mission, our being who we were called and created to be, salt and light, will not always be acceptable to the powers of this world.
Writing in the face of fascism and violence in Germany in the 1930s and 40’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded the church that to stand against power might mean questioning the legitimacy of the actions taken by those in power, it might mean binding up the wounds of those who have been hurt or victimized by those in power. As he writes “The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any societal order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community…In times when the laws are changing, the church may under no circumstances neglect …these duties.” And, finally, he writes, our duty “is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to fall [ourselves] within the spokes of the wheel itself.”
The church’s duty is not to worry or fear what will happen when we shine. To confront power is to rest not on our own ability, but the grace of God and the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are only to be salt and light – to be who God called and created us to be.
Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes this week of this truth with a poem about what happens when the powers of this world meet the power of God:
The Emperor shrinks.
His world is tight, walled in.
He is always shrinking,
every day a new closure.
The constricting pressure
squeezes his fear out into the world.
His darkness descends on them.
But followers of the Risen One
have seen the grave burst,
have seen the world enlarge,
light ever expanding into the darkness,
their hope radiating,
their world always opening, opening.
Remember this, this morning, my friends, the wisdom of Jesus crucified and risen, foolishness to the powers of this world – you are salt, and you are light! So rise, stand and resist the darkness! Shine, and don’t ever stop!