Sunday, January 23, 2005

First Light

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 4:12-23

At first light we see Jesus walking the shore of his beloved Galilee. He who is the First Light sets out at dawn, as the fishermen begin, casting and mending. This stylized memory from the mind of Matthew kindles our own memory and hope, too.

That first light of the day, daybreak, carries a power unlike any other hour’s hue. The excitement of beginning. The promise of another start. The crisp, cold opening of the year in January. Like the skier, mitts and poles at the ready, we adjust our goggles, and we lean, and…

Here is Jesus, midway from Christmas to Easter, from manger to cross, from nativity to passion. Along the shoreline he strides, one foot in sea and one on shore.

He meets two brothers at first light, and they meet him, God’s First Light, the light that shines in the darkness. Notice how Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, are sketched. There is little to nothing of history here, but what there is says so much! There is no parental shadow lying on their fishing nets. One hears no maternal imperative, no paternal dictate. These boys are on their own. They have left home already, maybe leaving the city to the south to find a meager middle-class existence with their own means of production. They are small business men, boat owners, fishermen. Neither the amhaaretz nor the gentry, they. Not poor, not rich. Working stiffs. Young, young men. Simon already has a nick-name. A sign of joviality, of conviviality, of gregarious playful fun. Peter, the Rock. Is this for his steady faithfulness or his failure to float? On this rock…Sinks like a Rock…You sense that these brothers play in the surf a little, kick up the sand a little, ogle the Palestinianas a little, take time to take life as it comes. Brown are their forearms, and burnished their brows. They love the lake and life, and have made already their entrance into adult life. For they have left home. One envies their youth and freedom. They have taken to the little inland sea, and with joy they meet each dawn, like this one, at first light, as they see Light.

You can feel the sand under their feet as they take a moment to play and laugh. You can feel the chill of the water as they swim, while breakfast cooks over the fire. You can feel their feeling of vitality and joy as they greet another day at first light.

I wonder whether we allow ourselves to drift a little too far from that first light feeling. Those nearly pure moments of almost rapturous illumination.

Your first child, tiny, red, crinkled, fists waving, crying and then asleep, literally in your hand. First light.

Your daughter, or son, taking the vows of confirmed faith, in the church’s chancel. Yes, there was some part child and another part adult in what was said. But they were here, in tie and dress. They were here, in public and in church. They murmured, and they murmured piously. And how did that feel Dad? First light.

Your day of matrimony. Down the aisle they come, or you come, father and daughter. Do you? Do you? I do. They do. And what was once a simpler world now has further complexity and creative power. A new creation. First light.

There must have been some moment, sometime, when you felt an intimacy with the universe, a closeness, a sense of purpose. That too is a kind of daybreak, dawn, first light.

Why we heard a bird like, first light voice right here, last Sunday. That little mite of a girl, slight and small against the gothic grandeur of this nave, stood to declare her faith—her sense of others’ need, her idea to help, her willingness to speak. We get too far away from dawn, if we are not careful. A simple trust, like

I am told (by Dr Rod Wilmoth) of a boy who goes to a winter vacation with his parents in Florida. They set him loose on the swimming pool. Before diving, he goes around the cement shoreline, a latter day Jesus on a latter day lake. He asks the adults a childlike question:

Are you a Christian?
Oh, no, I don’t go to church…

Are you a Christian…?
Well, I do go on Christmas and at Easter. I was there last month. But you know I don’t read the Bible or anything like that…

Are you a Christian?
You know, I used to be, but I kind of got away from it. So many other things…

Are you a Christian?
(An older man at last brings the reply he is looking for):
Why yes, I was baptized in my youth, and later made a moment of confirmation. I go to church every Sunday. I can’t stand to miss it. Yes, I tithe; I give away 10% of what I have each year, not all to the church, but mostly to the church, because that is the seed bed for future wonder, morality and generosity. I keep faith with my family and friends. I am a Christian. But why are you asking?

Well, sir, I want to go swimming, and have two quarters here in my shorts, and I wanted someone I could trust to hold them while I swim.

Our denomination once had a thriving ministry in China. When we were forced out of China in the 1940’s, something vital left our church. You can still feel the first light of mission in the halls and rooms at Scarritt in Nashville. Oriental ornaments, paintings, sculpture, gifts, symbols of connection and love. We grew up with the family of Tracy Jones, who himself had been raised as missionary child in China. Our first parsonage, in Ithaca, had once housed Pearl Buck, while she and her husband were back on furlough, from China. Have we begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh? Have we forgotten the love we had at first? Have we stayed close enough to that first light, and those first light experiences, to stay fresh?

Our malaise, our ennui, should we have such, our “acedia”—spiritual sloth or indifference, literally, our “not-caring”—so often is due to our turning away from the first light, dawn, daybreak, that elemental experience of love that energizes everything else.

Peter and Andrew, of course, are casting, casting nets. They have no furrowed brows, no endless worries, no pessimism, no angst. They probably have left unattended some holes in their nets, these two happy brothers. They are willing to accept that their casting will be imperfect, as all evangelism is imperfect. But that imperfection will not keep them from enjoying the labor of casting. To miss the first light is to miss the fun of faith!

Invite that neighbor, the one across the street whose porch light is always on. Here at dawn…those first stirrings, first longings, first intimations of something new and good….

Meanwhile, back on the beach, Jesus heads south, cove by cove, with Andrew and Peter frolicking in tow. They had already left home. They are ready to take a flier on some new trek, not fully sure how it will work out. It is a miracle that they are remembered, perhaps with a little hagiography, as having responded “immediately”. Still, every little scrap of memory of these two brothers tends in the same direction—full of vim, vigor, vitality and pepperino. Yes, they will follow!

Down the shoreline a little, there rests another boat. A different story, a different set of brothers altogether. James and John. Known as the sons of Zebedee. Simon has already earned his own name and nick-name. But these two are known by their father’s name. They haven’t left home. They have not yet acquired that second identity. Here they are, as usual at dawn, stuck in the back of the boat. All these years they have watched the Peter and Andrew show. All these years they have envied the fun and frolic down the beach. The late night parties. The bonfires. The singing. The swimming. And here they sit strapped to the old boat of old Zebedee. They are covered with the ancient equivalents of chap stick and coppertone. And they are trapped under the glaring gaze of Zebedee, whose thunderous voice has so filled their home that their own voices have never emerged. Every day, in the back of the boat. And what are they doing? Why you could have guessed it, even if the text had not made it plain. Are they casting? No. Are they fishing yet? No. Are they sailing? No. They are mending. Mending. Knit one, pearl two… There dad has got them into that conservation, protection, preservation mode. Mending. At first light! Of course nets need mending, but the nets and the mending are meant in a greater service! The fun is in the fishing! The joy is in the casting. And there they sit, sober Calvinists, mending. Deedle deedle dumpling, my son John…

Here we are mid-way between Christmas and Easter. This passage has a little passion (the Baptist) and a little nativity (Nazareth). The two stories of Jesus, of his birth and of his death, are meant to complement and interpret each other.

Here is a pronouncement of a broad peace, on earth. On earth. With Ghandi along the Ganges. Beside Tutu on the southern cape. Along the path of the Dalai Lama in farthest Tibet. In Tegucigalpa with Lynn Baker. This is no Calvinist quietism, which so suddenly has taken over non-Catholic American Christianity, from its seedbeds in the Orthodox Presbyterian and Anabaptist communions: cold, careful, efficient, first mile, changeless, fearsome, depressed grace. No, this is Christmas: warm, open, effective, second mile, free, growing, angry, and hopeful! Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage.

The early church told two stories about Jesus. The first about his death. The second about his life. The first, about the cross, is the oldest and most fundamental. The second, about the manger, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight, the code to decipher the first. Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture. That is the first story. But who was Jesus? What life did his death complete? How does his word heal our hurt? And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us to interpret the first. Christmas is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven. Christmas is meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all. Christmas is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had was Holy Week. And the Christmas images are the worker bees in this theological hive. Easter may announce the power of peace, but Christmas names the place of peace. Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did. Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did. That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm. What lovely news for us! Such a passionate year we have had. The passion too of Christ. Theologically, cinematically, politically, militarily, ecclesiastically —we have exuded passion this year. Christmas came again to announce that there is more to Jesus than the passion. There is the matter of peace as well.

The real miracles of this account lie in the second invitation to the second set of brothers. It is a miracle that Jesus stopped and invited them, so somber are they. I wonder if he took in the timbre of Zebedee’s voice, and saw them quaking in the back of the boat. Perhaps his heart went out to James and John. So he stops, and he asks.

That is the great thing about an invitation. All you can do is ask. Do ask. Ye have not because ye ask not. And for the first time in their lives, James and John are invited to live. So many people live half asleep. They don’t live life, life lives them. Like these two knitting in the back of the boat. Half asleep. Then dawn comes, and day breaks, and that first light shines! And a voice like no other, so equanimous and so serene, casts its spell upon them. Watch. It is a first light moment. First one, then the other, stands and moves. Under the shadow of that paternal presence, under the sound of that maternal imperative of home. They rise. And they move toward First Light. They are about to grow up. Wonderful! And what do they leave behind? You would have known even if the Scripture had not laid it right out. They leave behind the boat…and their father. We best honor the adults in our lives when we become adults ourselves.

Will this world grow up? That is what the UN and the World Council and the UMC have been striving and hoping for. Will we find a way to live together, all six billion of us, and to drink from the same cup?

This text, strangely like John, claims for Jesus that Jesus is light. Not color, now. Light. Color is great, and good. But we all want finally to be able to drink from the same water fountain, we want our children in one school, we want to sit at one table, we want to drink from one goblet. It is light that we will need into the 21st century. We finally all drink from the same cup.

I am told (by the Rev. Don Harp) of a man who stopped in his new neighborhood to buy lemonade from a freckle faced 7 year old girl and a mahogany skinned 6 year old boy. He paid his dime and drank his beverage and stayed to talk. After a while the girl asked if there was anything else he wanted. No, he said, why?

Well sir, we are running a business here, and we have had a busy morning, and we hope for a busy afternoon, but that cup you are holding is the only one we have, so if you don’t mind we’d like it back.

First Light! We forget it—HIM—at our worldly peril. If we walk in the light as he is in the light we have fellowship with one another. We have more in common, as this tragic tsunami reminds us, all around the globe, than we do in difference. Give us light, not darkness, Wesley not Calvin!

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

At first light, at dawn, we may with happiness remember this. The protagonist of M. Robinson’s Gilead, an old pastor in the Iowa town of this name, spends many mornings, at dawn, praying alone in his church. He loves the morning hour. He likes the church better empty. He basks in the first light of day.

Would you like to have some fun this week? Look around for dawn breaking, and kick up some sand.

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