Epiphany 3a 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.
Two weeks ago I told you a story that involved people who live “on the other side of the tracks.” Not every town has a railroad, of course, but almost every town and country has a way of dividing the haves from the have-nots, the rich from the poor. Sometimes the dividing line is as clear as a railroad track, cutting across a field and separating those on the poorer side from those on the side that is more well to do; you can stand on those tracks and look one way to see the rough shacks lining the dirt and gravel roads, and look the other way to see the neatly painted homes with green lawns facing paved streets.
In our part of the world, here in the Beautiful Bronx, the tracks don’t run side to side, but up and down. You can’t help but notice that the subway trains are literally “sub” in most of posh Manhattan, but that they suddenly come above-ground once they hit Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens! It is no accident that the tracks — and the noisy Number 1 trains they carry — come above ground on Broadway just at 125th street on the West Side, and the commuter trains out of Grand Central emerge at 98th Street on the East. Welcome to Harlem... surprise, surprise.
Closer to home, in fact, just outside those very doors, when the Lexington Avenue train came north along Jerome Avenue in the teen years of the last century, the leaders of this parish tried to convince the city to run it underground at least from Burnside to Kingsbridge. Sad to say, the bloom was off the rose at Saint James by that point, and the membership — which a generation before had included the Mayor of New York himself and many of the other City bigwigs — was no longer so powerful or persuasive, certainly not as successful as their counterparts over on Grand Concourse, at the time truly grand as it was meant to be New York’s version of the Champs Elysée in Paris — so while the D train runs underground out of sight, out of mind, under the Grand Concourse with no visible tracks or train to upset the carriage trade, here on Jerome Avenue we’ve had to live with the clickety-clack, don’t talk back, for almost a hundred years.
As I say, every culture and country has its way to distinguish the in from the out, the rich from the poor, the posh from the hoi polloi. It isn’t always as obvious as a railway train or its tracks. For the folks of the Prep Schools and the Ivy League, it might be the accents of the rednecks of the deep South. For the farmers of the Great Plains, it might be the manners and airs of those suspiciously effete people who live on the coasts — East and West. For the Russians it might be the language and customs of the Uzbecks; for Australians, those of the aborigines.
Sometimes there are subdivisions even within these divisions, separating the merely poor from the desperately poor. It is one of the sad relics of the institution of slavery that there was a class distinction even among slaves, as house slaves looked down on field slaves. If you saw the Django Unchained film last year or Twelve Years A Slave this year, you know and can see just how hard and terrible those divisions could be, even within that oppressive horrible institution — some still thought of themselves as better than others.
Ancient Israel was no different. The center of things was in Jerusalem of Judea. But far to the north there was a place that the Judeans regarded as a place of darkness. It was so overrun with Gentiles and their pagan ways you might just as well write off the Jews who lived there as pagans themselves — “Galilee of the nations,” they called it; and “nations” is just English for “Gentiles,” pagans, literally “ethnics.”
And the early church was no better, as we see from Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth, where people have already started to divide up as they place their bets respectively on Paul or Apollos or Cephas. Sectarianism and denominationalism is nothing new in Christianity! No culture or institution seems to be immune from divisions and disagreements — even one like the church, which is supposed to be the loving family of God.
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The good news is that it is into these very divisions and disagreements, into these very dark corners of the land, that the grace of God and the light of Christ have come to shine. This should come as no surprise, for after all Christ reminded us that it is the sick who need a physician — it is those who are divided who need to be united, and it is the dark places that need light! And Jesus is not only the Good Physician who comes to bring healing, but he is the Light of God to shine in the darkness, and the source of unity to overcome division.
The people who walked in darkness have been shown a great light; a great light has shined upon them — and as Pogo so wisely said, “they is us.”
For as long as there is division and dissent and discourtesy, as long as there is a sense of who is in or who is out, of rich or poor measured only by the outward signs of dress or accent or bankbook or “income inequality,” of divisions and pride based on race or culture or clan, or even division within the Christian family based on which Christian teacher one chooses to follow — as long as such virtual train tracks divide us, we are walking in darkness indeed — or worse than walking, maybe riding an express train to perdition.
All is not lost, however. The light has shone forth in the darkness — as Jesus began his ministry precisely in that dark land that the pious Judeans of Jerusalem thought was lost and beyond saving. You may recall how they scoffed and said, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee!” Yet that is just where Jesus begins and carries out most of his ministry. It is right there, right by the sea, by the beautiful sea, that he gathers the beginnings of the apostolic band, he gathers those followers, Simon called Peter, and his brother Andrew; along with the sons of Zebedee, our patron James and his brother John. This is the land on which the light of the world first shined his Gospel acclamation, the roads upon which he set his feet, and set his hands to work, proclaiming the good news and curing every disease and every sickness among the people, and especially the sickness of division.
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The medicine this Good Physician applied continues to be available to us today — and it is plentiful and free. It is the water of baptism, the water in which all Christians are baptized, and which should thereby remind us that we are one in Christ, not divided one against another, or in teams or sects or subdivisions following other teachers. Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians of this truth, when he reproached them, in strong language, for their quarrels. “Is Christ divided? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? In whose name were you baptized?” For it is Christ and Christ alone into whom and in whose name we were baptized. That simple fact should stop us in our tracks — if those tracks are meant to divide us!
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So let us not, my sisters and brothers in Christ, let the tracks of trains, or the signs of race or language, or of religious distinctions, divide us when the great unifying light of Christ is shining on us, when the plentiful water of the one baptism has washed over us, making us one people worshiping one Lord and proclaiming one faith. To all who have been saved and are being saved and will be saved — by Christ — this is the power and the love of God, in whose name we pray, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.+