Text: Matthew 4:12-23
On April 11, 1943 as World War II raged, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick stood in the historic pulpit of Riverside Church where he was pastor and began his sermon with these words:
“This certainly is a ghastly time to be alive. Behind the stirring headlines that narrate the clash of armies and the march of victory, an unheralded mass of human misery exists, the likes of which our earth has seldom, if ever, seen before…Moreover, this is an especially hideous generation for Christians. Ralph Waldo Emerson, when a young minister, attended an important Bible society’s convention in a southern state, and by chance the meetings were held in a room whose windows opened on a slave market where Negroes were being auctioned off. So Emerson describes the scene: ‘One ear therefore heard the glad tidings of great joy, whilst the other was regaled with ‘Going, gentleman, going.’’…Such an intolerable contradiction we face now in a generation where one listens with one ear to the faiths, hopes, and ideals of the Christian gospel, and with the other to this war’s unbridled violence and brutality.”
It is almost as if Fosdick is speaking to us today. “Such an intolerable contradiction we face now in a generation where one listens with one ear to the faiths, hopes, and ideals of the Christian gospel, and with the other to” messages of “America First” spoken with words of hostility and fear and prejudice spurring “unbridled violence and brutality.” But a few paragraphs later, Fosdick makes a transition. He speaks these words:
“Nevertheless, this is also a great time to be alive, and alike the personal and the public issues of it depend on whether we see that. For one thing, ours is a day when we cannot seek for ease but must seek for adequacy. Life’s restful days we love, but other days come too—great days—that require of us not ease but adequacy. Some eras are like a lullaby; some are like a spur. Which of the two is likely in the end to be the greater?”
Some eras are like a lullaby; some are like a spur. Matthew says that this way: sometimes the people sit in darkness and sometimes they see a great light.
In one sense, for most of my life, I have been afraid of the dark. Maybe it is because of the scary stories my grandmother and great-grandmother told me growing up—about all the bad things that lurked in the darkness. They could be quite dramatic. They did this same thing to my sister and as much as I would try my very best to not be afraid of the dark, Allyson would always remind me of all those possible things that were out there lurking in the darkness. Truth be told, it was her way of coaxing me to sleep in her bedroom because she was even more afraid of the dark than I was. As I have mentioned before in sermons darkness in the country is a lot darker than darkness in the city. And we grew up in the deep darkness of the rural night sky.
It would be a bit dishonest to say this morning that now, in my adult life, I am less afraid of the dark. The truth is that I am still afraid of darkness. But the darkness that I have become fearful of is not the same darkness I feared as a child. That darkness was simply the dark that came with evening and the setting of the sun – the absence of the light of day. That darkness I no longer fear. The darkness that I am afraid of now, more intensely than I have ever felt it, is the darkness of a growing nationalism that shouts with arrogance and pride, “America First.” The darkness I am afraid of now is the darkness of fear that paralyzes us as a nation to no longer honor the words of the poet, those words that have shaped our values and principles as a nation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The darkness that I am afraid of now is the darkness of scarcity—the kind of scarcity outlined in an inaugural speech to the nation this past Friday this way: “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs.” (Donald Trump, inaugural address, January 20, 2017) The darkness of scarcity in two sentences. The darkness that I am afraid of now is the darkness of otherness—the kind of darkness that says if you don’t think like me, love like me, believe like me, or worship like me then you are to be feared by me. These are the forms of darkness that I am afraid of now. These, I believe, are the forms of darkness that make it ghastly time to be alive.
“Nevertheless, this is also a great time to be alive, and alike the personal and the public issues of it depend on whether we see that.” And I think I see it. Let me share with you two examples from this past week where I saw light. I saw that it is a great time to be alive this past Thursday as I had the privilege to gather with a diverse group of people in the Campbell Law School auditorium to watch the documentary “13th.” Named after the 13th constitutional amendment, which abolished slavery except as “punishment for crime,” the documentary uses archival footage and expert commentary to make the case that slavery hasn’t disappeared from the U.S.—instead it’s evolved into our modern system of mass incarceration, one in which many prisons are run by for-profit companies and prisoners can be paid a pittance to work for corporations. 13th is hard to watch. It shows the horrific and ugly truth of our past as it recounts our nation’s history of slavery. And through telling the truth about the realities of our current prison system it shows how slavery continues today in a different form. The documentary shows the deep darkness of our past and present. But in that room that night I saw a great light: the light of people from all walks of life—black, brown and white people; young and old and in between; law students, public defenders, ministers, community organizers; those who have never stepped foot in a jail and one man who told of his experience of 5 years incarcerated—coming together to talk openly and honestly about a painful truth—a real darkness in our nation. That night, I saw the light that united the people in that room: it was the light of recognition—the recognition of the sins of our past as a nation and our communal struggle to redeem the past for a better, more just future. In that room, with people from all walks of life, wrestling with hard truths, it felt like a great time to be alive.
Yesterday, again, I saw the light and felt that feeling of how great it is to be alive. Yesterday, I was one person in an estimated crowd of some 17,000 people gathered in the streets of Raleigh to shine a great light on the values and principles that undergird the common good of our nation. Again, people from all walks of life came together for one common purpose: to protect human rights and our democracy. It was a beautiful picture of who we are as a diverse nation. As I stood among my sisters and brothers I thought of the words Dr. King spoke in Memphis on April 3, 1968—his last speech before he was assassinated on April 4. He said, “The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men in some strange way are responding. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi, the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’” Or as the gospel writer says to us today: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Yesterday, that great light shone bright from Seattle to Sydney, Boston to Berlin, North Carolina to Nairobi, Chicago to Cape Town to California; from London to New York; from Paris to South Carolina; from Amsterdam to Denver to Utah and to our nations capitol, Washington DC. Something is happening in our world. The people are rising up. They have seen a great light. It is a great time to be alive.
In his sermon A Great Time to Be Alive Dr. Fosdick argues that the failure of Christians is doing nothing actively to change the world. I guess that argument could still be made today. But lately it seems everywhere I look people of faith are rising up and proclaiming good news—the good news that nationalism is being met with compassionism (yes, I just made up that word), fear is being met with courage and openness, scarcity is challenged with abundance, and otherness is reflected into an affirmation of our diversity. There is great evidence in the world today that I, we, need not be afraid of the dark.
Our text this morning ends with Jesus calling ordinary people, with ordinary lives to follow him—to follow this great light. He says to them, “I will make you fishers of people.” Now that image doesn’t really resonate with me so I have changed how that reads. I have changed it to say, “I will make you gatherers of the light.” That is our task as 21st century disciples. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are to be gatherers of this great light of compassion, courage, openness, abundance, and the beauty of the diversity of God’s creation. When we pick up our lives and follow this great light it is no longer a ghastly time to be alive. It is, indeed, a great time to be alive.