An Enlightened Courage
John 1:9 and Lections
September 16, 2007
Robert Allan Hill
The true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world…
One precious free Sunday morning in August I went unaccompanied and somewhat unwillingly to worship. Free Sundays are gold, rare and weighty. I did not really know what to expect, but something defiant or disciplined or both prevailed, and off I went. Sometimes you go until you believe, and then you go because you believe…
What a marvel! For a disciplined hour of ordered worship, in the embrace of a small Baptist church in Hamilton NY, we fortunate to have come were embraced in the disciplined 59 minutes of a beautiful service. Dag Hammarskjold (‘forget no experience’) greeted us as we prepared to worship. An introit from 1558 lifted our hearts. Desmond Tutu responded with us to prayer (‘goodness is stronger than evil’). We sang and were sung to. A true sermon, courageous and timely, crowned the service.
For today, especially, I recall: Brother Roger of Taize and of blessed memory captured the moment (‘you place your precious light within each one of us’).
So moved that I could barely utter a word of thanks, and too moved to stop and enjoy the hot, delicate pastries and treats offered on the church steps, I stumbled away. Enlightened. Rev. Joe Glaze and his community of hospitality, I salute you. As the Romans intended, they did all with an enlightened courage, an excellent grace, ‘ad unguem’—down to the fingertips. The community honored God and loved their neighbor. In that hour—and we may hope in this one too—there was no mistaking the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “the true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world”.
Jesus is our Lord. He is the giver of our ownmost selves. He is ‘our beacon not our boundary’. Jesus illumines us. He embraces us with an enlightened courage. By such an enlightened courage, now and in the days to come, we may live in bold, happy confidence. John tells us so. John?
First, John the Evangelist, of the community of the beloved disciple, tells us so. John 1:9 is the closest we come in the Bible to ancient Gnosticism. The Gnostic inflection of a natural dualism, and a natural salvation—both of which the gospel transposes into a dualism of decision (yes, the Bultmannian phrase still carries)—comes out of the strange, ancient world of Gnosis. Here, the fearless, courageous, enlightened author of John was not afraid to employ the language of the culture around him. He was not afraid to use the language of the ‘world’ he finds so dark, to carry the message of the cross, to convey the announcement of the glory of God.
Our Psalm remembers the poor. Our prophet, Jeremiah, decries a dehumanizing neglect of his peoples’ truest selves. Paul’s student writing in 1 Timothy exemplifies the good in one life, that of Paul himself. The passage from Luke—the first of three utterly familiar and possibly Gnostic parables—highlights a scandalous particularity, a fervent search for every last, lost particle of light. But it is John the meta-gospel, John the gospel squared, John the gospel about the gospel, which gathers up all these motifs, and like a great jazz artist effortlessly plays them all. You light. You true. You all. You one. The hazy illumination of psalm, prophet, Paul, and passage are focused, refracted and beamed forth in John: “the true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world”. John tells us so. John?
Second, John Dempster, who founded Boston University, set his own lamp on a great Boston bushel for all the world to see. “Let your light so shine…” ‘In tuo lumen videmus lumis”. Dempster was converted to faith in a backwoods revival along the Mohawk river, early in the 19th century. He founded the school that became our own in 1839, convinced by an enlightened courage. He traveled west, hoping to initiate such a school on the pacific coast, spurred on by an enlightened courage. He traveled to South America, intending to seed there a seminary, emboldened by an enlightened courage. He planted a Midwestern seed near Chicago that did grow up and become Garrett at Northwestern, inflamed by an enlightened courage. When our daughter was born there in June, she came to life in a hospital located on Dempster Avenue.
Draw out your own map. Plant your own seeds: east, west, south, north. The mind matters, greatly, for the future. Here in Boston, the spiritual descendents of Dempster could create a full school of philosophical theology and thought, the personalist school, for which one would be hard pressed to find a finer text: ‘the true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world’. John tells us so. John?
Third, in Dempster’s own Boston of 100 years later, John Kennedy reflected some of the enlightened courage proclaimed by John the Evangelist and practiced by John Demptser. Where true light enters a dark world—there! There is the Christ! John of the Gospel faithfully affirmed this light in the pagan, Gnostic language of the 2nd century. John Dempster fearlessly affirmed the light of reason, struggling in the wilderness of frontier Methodism. An enlightened courage, an enlightened courage it takes to say so and do so. Is this not what makes a Sunday afternoon visit to Boston’s Kennedy Center such a bright moment? Is this not what enthralls the reader and the hearer who visits and studies there? With stern resolve, Kennedy and his team faced the real oppositions, challenges and enemies of the cold war. With an enlightened courage. Will our stern resolve, facing the terrorist enemies of the global community, include such an enlightened courage? Courage and insight? Resolve and imagination? Strength and wisdom? What will it profit a man or a nation to gain the whole world, but to lose one’s soul?
In an October 1960 speech to Michigan students, Kennedy challenged them to work in development, all over the globe. Since then 178,000 two year volunteers have served in 138 countries. The right idea, at the right time, in the right way—the initiative inspired a wave of generosity. An idea.
Monet was once asked what he mixed with his paints to create such beautiful impressions. ‘Brains’, he replied. ‘The true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world’. So says John. John?
Fourth, John Wesley reminds us to trust our experience. His best loved text was the Fourth Gospel. His spiritual grandson was John Dempster. His incarnational theology influenced both the religious enthusiasm and the cultural support of the Peace Corps. An enlightened courage moves people out of what is harmful and into what is helpful. Wesley did not cloister himself. He did not fear the spiritual rhythms of field, mine or shipyard. For Wesley, real religion was personal religion, both mind and spirit, both head and heart. He knew about salvation through enlightened courage. We can too. We can. We can find our way back to the honor of God, in thought and word and deed. We can: even though the way is hard, the gate narrow and the path straight.
Over five years, the tattered remains of Wesley’s spiritual descendents in preaching—schooled by John the Evangelist, formed by the institutions of John Dempster, inspired by the common hope of John Kennedy—have offered Thought in a spirit of enlightened courage. Iraq 2003, we thought, was pre-emptive, unilateral, imperial, reckless, immoral, post Judeo-Christian, and wrong. (You can find the details in website sermons, asburyfirsumc.org, bu.edu\chapel, and others). But that Johannine Thought was ignored.
Then over three years, the tattered remains of Wesley’s preacher cousins, his real descendents, resembling the blood on snow weakened defeat of Washington’s ragamuffin army at Valley Forge—schooled by John 1, formed by John 2, inspired by John 3—have offered a Word, in five parts. One: Admit both failure and mistake. Two: Turn again to the gathered nations. Three: Eschew material gain, interest in oil. Four: Give a timeline. Five: Call forth the generosity of this great land to develop peace. (You can find the details on the websites). But that Johannine Word was also ignored.
In conclusion today, I ask you to consider, to pray about, a deed to be assessed in enlightened courage. Thought, rejected. Word, refused. People of good will and common hope will need to respond. In Deed. What is the claim of John 1:9, an enlightened courage, upon us, now? What are we to do, with regard to the central moral, historical, and spiritual issue of this small patch of time? Nothing? Are we to let the dead bury the dead?
I offer one idea.
It will require another sermon (next Sunday) to offer a full description of this idea. Its marrow though can be simply stated. Let us pray whether to open our homes, hearts and lives to the victims, the refugees of this debacle, tragedy and horror. Let us pray whether to try to harness the goodness yet alive in and among us and others to provide hospitality to victims and refugees of this holocaust.
How shall we do so? Shall we do so? Should we do so? I do not yet know. ‘I have no word of the Lord on this’. But where Thought is rejected, and where Word is refused, it becomes a matter of Deed. It becomes a matter of doing. (You may have a far better idea than this one about church inflamed refugee resettlement. I am listening. All ears.) We shall need every ounce of good news carried by the enlightened courage of John Evangelist, John Dempster, John Kennedy, and John Wesley, all of whom cry and shout from their graves: “the true light that enlightens every one was coming into the world”.