Text: Isaiah 9:1-7
The Preamble to the United States Constitution is a brief introductory statement of the Constitution’s fundamental purposes and guiding principles. The Preamble states in general terms, and courts have referred to it as reliable evidence of, the Founding Fathers’ intentions regarding the Constitution’s meaning and what they hoped the Constitution would achieve. It reads, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
As a fifth grader, I remember standing before my class and reciting those words from memory. It is actually one of the earliest memories I have from grade school. Even then, as a young child, I felt a sense of reverence and awe in speaking the words. “We, the people…a more perfect Union, establish Justice…promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…” Although the preamble to the United States Constitution is not a source of power for any department of the Federal Government, its words and intent carry tremendous power, especially those first three words, “We the people.” The people. Why is there such power in those two ordinary words when spoken together? Why is it that, in almost any context, they do seem to become a statement of purpose and of guiding principle?
People often ask me how long it takes me to write a sermon. And I’m never quite sure how to respond to that question. My weekly ritual, though, goes something like this. Monday morning when I get to my office before I do anything else I will read all the lectionary texts for the upcoming Sunday. Once I have read all the texts, I sit in silence waiting for that preverbal, “word from the Lord.” I wait. And I wait. Still waiting, I will settle in on one of the lectionary texts and begin my study—reading commentaries and other sources of inspiration. I meet with the staff on Tuesday to plan worship. Then I meet with my lectionary group on Wednesday to discuss the text I have chosen; and they always have wonderful insights and ideas. Thursday and Friday are simmering days when ideas and thoughts begin coming together. And then on Saturday I write—usually for about six or seven hours. Often, in this process, I will awake in the middle of the night with a clear thought that gives me direction for writing my sermon. This week, in the early hours on Thursday morning, the words “the people” awakened me. I immediately thought of Isaiah.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them (the people) light has shined.” The people—that is God’s word for today. Overcoming the darkness in our world is about the people—God’s people—seeing the light of justice and righteousness and then taking a stand for justice. It is about those—the people— who are living in the land of deep darkness having a light shined on them. It is about you and me—every one of us, the people—shining our light on God’s justice and righteousness. It is about “the people”—God’s people—shining the light of love and compassion and equality in a land of deep darkness. There is deep darkness in our land—we saw it in Tuscon, Arizona this month; we look out our backdoor and see the construction at Central Prison and watch as our State expands our prison facilities, while reducing services to the mentally ill; we experience it in our community as our elected leaders seek to turn back the hands of time and re-segregate our public schools; we attend our children’s funeral services because they have been bullied by their peers for being who God created them to be; we send our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers, our brothers and sisters to fight what began as an unjust war; we drive by those who have fought our wars and who now stand on the side of the road holding signs begging for food; we listen to the stories of our neighbors who can’t find work, or who work two jobs but still fall below the poverty line. Yes, so many in our land are living in deep darkness. And yet, many of us are relatively insulated from that darkness. What does that mean for “the people” or more importantly, what does that mean for, “we, the people?”
If you have ever walked in darkness and been guided out of that darkness by the light of hope and love; by the light of friendship and companionship; by the light of justice and grace, then you know just how great and powerful light can be. And you know how important it can be when you find yourself in darkness for someone to hold the light for you so you can find your way out of the darkness. Isaiah reminds us today that is what the people—God’s people—do for one another. It is what God calls us to do for one another and with one another. The people who see the light, the people who have had the light shined on them—they not only rejoice in the light, but they in turn shine the light for others—they shine the light on God’s justice. They give witness to the light—the light of hope and peace for all.
There is a line of logic that I want to establish here. Light enters the world through people. Because we, the people, failed to understand that reality for generations, God came to us in the form of one of us, a human – the light made manifest as flesh and bone. God’s presence is everywhere, but what the Jesus story teaches us is that God’s presence is nowhere more powerful than in each of us.
Light is like a virus – it is highly contagious, but you have to come into contact with it one way or another in order to get infected, and the closer and more intimate that contact, the higher the likelihood that light is going to take hold and be felt. If we can agree on my first two points, that light enters the world through people, and is carried and spread by people, then there are powerful implications for how we define “we, the people.” You see, in order to spread the light, to shine the light on those in darkness, people must be in relationship, in community, in some way or another, intimate. We simply cannot sit in our own sanctuary and hope that our deep compassion and our belief in mercy and our commitment to justice are going to glow so powerfully from our pews that we will somehow irradiate the city. No, shining the light has to be hand-to-hand, face-to-face, heart-to-heart.
At the risk of tainting the light with my virus analogy, I’m going to push it a little farther. I’ve had a bad cold over the past two weeks, and it frustrates me. I am usually very resistant to colds, and when I do succumb, it always makes me wonder why the other 90% of the time I can shake it off, when this time I couldn’t. Sharing the light isn’t completely different. You see, exposure is necessary, but not sufficient. You can be exposed to the light, and not catch it. So that forces the question of what are the conditions that make us or those around us susceptible to coming down with the light? I wish I had a formula to share, but instead I will share a story, one that you all have heard before.
After the November 2009 elections, I was deeply troubled by the Wake County School Board results; and in the weeks that followed the election, I became more and more agitated and frustrated at what felt like aggressive steps toward a clear injustice. There was a lot going on in my own life and work at that point, and while I felt a sharp need to be involved in opposing the new Board’s actions, I was unclear of how to do that work, how to balance it with the rest of my priorities, and how to make a real impact. After months of stewing, steaming, and venting to anyone who would listen, I wrote a letter to the editor expressing my concerns. If we want to use the virus analogy, I would have to say the equivalent is, I sneezed. Notice I didn’t say I had a master plan to isolate and propagate my virus, instead I responded from my own voice, and that response went out into the world. As you know, that sneeze resulted in a phone call from William Barber, and the rest, as they say, is history, or in my case, a police record. My small, personal, relatively undirected action, the letter to the editor, catalyzed something in Reverend Barber, and he, in turn, ignited something in me. It was a chain reaction of light that neither of us can explain, but that we each know and acknowledge as life affirming and life changing. Up to the point of my “involvement” with William Barber, I would have told you that I saw all of Wake County’s children and families as part of my “we, the people.” But in entering into relationship with Reverend Barber, my understanding of what it meant to be “we” shifted radically. It was no longer about making statements, it was about marching together. It was no longer about being indignant, it was about being incited to act. It was no longer about saying “we,” it was about living “we.”
For over 125 years, our church, Pullen Church, has been a light bearer in this community and in the world. Acknowledging the deep darkness in the land, the people of Pullen Church have faithfully–notice I didn’t say perfectly, but faithfully–shone the light on injustice. We have not sat in our own sanctuary and simply hoped that our deep compassion and belief in mercy and our commitment to justice would glow from our pews. Our light has been hand-to-hand, face-to-face, and heart-to-heart.
Now is not the time to take a step back from our commitment to being light bearers in the world. Now is not the time to simply make decisions that would guarantee the survival of an institution, even if it is our own. Now is not the time to play it safe. Now is the time to hold fast to our tradition and take a new risk for justice and righteousness. Now is the time to gather our resources for any and all whom our society would say are not equal, not worthy, don’t look like us, don’t speak like us, don’t believe like us, and who may not live in our neighborhoods. Now is the time for “the people”—we, the people—to shine our light on the deep darkness of the land. Now is the time for we, the people, to be community to one another: hand-to-hand, face-to-face, and heart-to-heart. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! God’s hope for us, the people, is that we would let our light shine for all people.