There’s a city in central Oregon, a small city, called Madras, about one hundred and ten miles southeast of Portland. Some of you probably know it; it was especially popular with eclipse chasers in 2017. If you’ve ever driven to Madras from Portland, you know that you drive east over Mt. Hood with all of its twists and turns, and as you come down off the mountain you suddenly find yourself in the high desert; the landscape changes dramatically and the land stretches out flat in front of myou and around you as far as the eye can see. When you make the trip at night, on the distant horizon are the bright twinkling lights of Madras. If you’ve left town on a Friday and struggled through traffic and the challenges of the mountain, it’s the place you think you’ll stop for gas, some food, and a stretch. If you haven’t ever done this drive, I hope you don’t do it at night for the very first time, because right around the time that you set your sights on Madras, those lights in the mdistance, the road dips down and twists and winds in a fairly hair-raising way down, down, down for about fifteen miles, to the Warm Springs River and back up again. It’s the kind of road (like some we traveled in the Holy Land last week), where you don’t want to be sitting in the passenger seat looking down.
I’m thinking of this journey to Madras as a metaphor for our own faith journey. There’s much that is complicated, unknown, and perhaps frightening on our way toward letting our light shine. The journey to the place where our own light is a city on a hill can be a torturous one; I know mine has been.
* * * *
The city built on a hill that Jesus refers to in today’s gospel is Jerusalem. I spent a week there the week before last, with our bishop and a group of other pilgrims. It is a city on a hill that draws me back again and again. In our group on this trip, the phrase that kept coming up and became kind of a theme for us was “It’s Jerusalem; it’s complicated.” Holy places are like that. Holy journeys are like that.
Last week, if we weren’t celebrating the Feast of the Presentation, we would have heard the beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… You know the rest.
Being the city on the hill, living our Christian lives in the world, is not something we do to get into the kingdom, it is our response to the blessing that is already ours, our response to the kingdom that is already ours. Being that light is not about doing good works, it’s about moving through the world as people who have received that blessing.
Jesus’ continuation of the Sermon on the Mount reminds his hearers— us—that the vocation of the people of Israel, and the vocation of his disciples is to be the light of the world. The calling to let light shine is the calling of Jerusalem in spite of the conflict and tensions that still surround that Holy City. It is the vocation of each of us in spite of the inner conflicts that may plague us.
You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others.We talk about light a lot, especially this time of year. This Epiphany light we talk about, sing about, and pray about is the light that comes into the world at Christmas, light that John wrote about, light that could not be overcome by darkness. I want to lift up a perspective we don’t often hear about: from our common imagery of dark and light we have gotten into some bad habits. Like Jerusalem, it’s complicated. We have gotten into habits in our symbols and in our language, that suggest that white is the color of light, of all that is good and pure, and black is the color of darkness, emptiness, and evil.
If we are serious about dismantling white supremacy and defeating the weight of our history in order to be a post colonial church, we need to be able to stretch ourselves beyond light vs. darkness language. You may think this is unnecessary, a bridge too far. And yet, it’s a bridge toward Christians of color surrounded by statues and paintings of white Jesuses, surrounded by liturgical leaders in white robes, some of them hooded robes. Pastor Lenny Duncan, in his wonderful book “Dear Church” (which I hope all of you will read) provides examples of half a dozen ways to talk about Advent besides waiting for light to conquer dark. Maybe we can think just as imaginatively about how we speak of Epiphany light. What if Epiphany is light that refracts white into color? God’s light that shines through us is anything but white.
Today’s reading from Isaiah generously provides us with all kinds of language for being the light of the world, the twinkling city on a hill:
Lift your voice like a trumpet!
Share your bread with the hungry
Give the homeless poor a home
Clothe the naked.
Be a watered garden,
be repairers of the breach.
This is what it means to let our light shine multicolored light that reflects to the world the blessings of the kingdom of God.
Like pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem, our journey to become a city on a hill is complicated. It often takes suffering, doubt, or —at the very least—a few wrong turns to shine our own light.
Rowan Williams recounts the work of a 5th Christian writer who speaks of redemption as the work of an artist, or an iconographer. The work of redemption is the work of receiving the beatitudes and letting our light shine. Williams writes: “First, you sketch the outline in pencil, and then you put in the colors. So first, the Holy Spirit in baptism sketches the ‘outline’ of Christ … and then, the work of the Spirit as you grow in your discipleship fills in the colors.” The spirit sketches onto us the outline of Christ, and as we grow in discipleship, the Spirit fills in the colors.
As we navigate God’s blessings and God’s call, as we travel the twisting, winding, shadowed pilgrimage of our own discipleship, let us shine with brightly colored light.