January 22, 2023 - Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Just two months before the pandemic shut the world down, I helped our younger son, John, move into his dorm room after a semester abroad. It was a cold, rainy day when we moved him in. Getting his refrigerator up the two flights of stairs nearly did me in. I was the one lower on the stairs. John kept saying, “Mom, lift higher!” I kept trying to raise that box more. As I did, I would let out a bit of a groan with each heave. I think I was secretly hoping some uber-fit 21-year-old would have pity and offer to help us on the stairwell. But, no such luck. They were busy getting their own loads in. I think my lack of lift gave John a backache that lasted a few months from his overextending to compensate for me. Still, I made it. When kids stopped by the room, I casually said, “Yeah, we just go the fridge in…” like it was no big deal. John just looked at me, like, “Seriously, Mom?”
As we went back and forth carrying boxes into John’s dorm, I was having another experience. My husband and I attended the same college. So, being back there is always a bit like an excavation exercise. I uncover layer upon layer of memories. John’s dorm was one where I visited friends many times.
While I’ve long since forgotten exact rooms, I recognized the feel of the place, the shape of the rooms, the architecture of the building.
We live with a certain amnesia about the geography of our lives. Old rooms we have occupied, roads we have taken, restaurants where we have dined, cities we have visited—are buried in our memories like sediment. Sometimes we excavate them; more often, we do not. They just remain there as silent informants of our present and, to some extent, determinants of our future.
One of my favorite words in our Christian tradition is the Greek word, Anamnesis. We use it to describe what we do each week in Holy Communion. It means “making the past present.”
Anamnesis is the heart of our eucharistic liturgy; it is the inverse of amnesia. In the act of the eucharist, a simple meal, prepared and received at the altar each week, we make Christ’s sacrifice present again.
In today’s gospel, Jesus also makes the past present again by choosing to live in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. These are not just any cities; they are ancestral lands of Israel that had been taken by Assyria. When this happened, these regions became alienated from the rest of Israel; they became Gentile territory. Yet, the land was home to both the descendants of Jacob and the Gentiles. Jesus knew this all too well. He chose to go to ground zero of tensions between Jews and Gentiles. Why? For one purpose only: healing.
It is to the places where people have known the pain of division that He goes first. He knows, if healing can happen there, where distrust has taken root like a predatory vine, if healing can happen there—it can happen anywhere. So, to those communities, he brings light.
Matthew tells us Jesus moved to this area after Herod killed john the Baptist—another experience, centuries after Isaiah wrote, that created enmity—this time between the Roman Empire and the Israelites. Matthew quotes Isaiah: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.”
Jesus comes proclaiming a light that can heal divisions, even between Assyria and Israel, even between Rom and Israel. And he chooses to launch his message in the geography where this pain has been keenly experienced.
Writing even earlier than Matthew, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to find a higher calling than their divisions, too. He says to the Corinthians, “I’ve heard what y’all are doing,” (that’s the Southern version). “Claiming – I’m with Paul, or I’m with Apollo.” And our Presiding Bishop’s personal favorite—Chloe’s people.
Presiding Bishop Curry says every congregation has a Chloe—you know, the ones who keep the pot stirred. Layers and layers of enmity build up when we gossip and harden our hearts toward those with whom we are in conflict.
And all the time, right under our noses, right in the midst of our disagreements, treasure sits buried in the holy sites upon which we stand. All the time the treasure sits, waiting to be excavated. It rests in our collective memory, like my son’s college dorm rests in my memory—our holy sites—like this beloved place—hold the truths for which our spirits long—the truths half known, half remembered, but hidden from plain sight.
In the very sites where his people had known the most bitter division, Jesus made his home. From that place, he proclaimed the light Isaiah had foretold—the light that brings an end to every division. Into that light he called humble, faithful men and women. Simple folk who were mending nets, catching fish, tending fires. People like James, for whom you are named. He called them to follow him—to start a movement that would bring the light to every place where it had become hidden.
This, my beloved friends, is his call to us still. From a season of division that has cost us much—that has left great wounds, he calls us to remember whose we are. He calls us back into the light.He calls us to anamnesis—to make present those from the past, those first pioneers who held services here on this island—more than 200 years ago. He calls us to carry on the lineage of saints who followed him amid wars, hurricanes, and plagues.
In this sacred place, saints before us have trod and served. In this sacred place, lost souls have been saved, downtrodden have found help, oppressed peoples have found freedom.
Let the walls speak to you. Let the trees talk. Let the quiet chapel at the water’s edge behind this church beckon you back to the light that has always shone forth here. This is a place whose walls have always held the faithful and propelled the faithful out to serve those in need. Our divisions are not the story that endures. Any more than Zebulun and Naphtali’s history with Assyria was the story, Jesus wanted those first fishermen, including James, to tell.
No, it was a story far grander, far truer to the land on which they stood together. “In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 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.” This is the story Jesus came to bring to full flourishing. This is the story into which he calls you and me. We are here, in this sacred place that has seen generations. We are here to carry the light forward.
The college our sons attended—and that my husband and I attended a generation earlier, has Quaker roots. The motto for the school is “Mind the Light.” Each time I return, whether to move my son into his dorm room in the freezing rain, or to hear a concert or attend a graduation, I have the experience of anamnesis—of the past being present—the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before our little family.
I remember people no longer with us who once walked the halls. I remember old loves and old friends in the halls of a dorm I once visited in days gone by. And, every time, in each visit, no matter the occasion—sad, joyous, or poignant—I am pulled forward by that motto— “Mind the Light.”
I am so very glad to be with you, back in this historic church that has been part of our Episcopal history for over 300 years. I am grateful, so grateful to each of you and all you have done to care for this place—now and in years gone by.
I am saddened that we ever had divisions and strife. It is never what we would wish. I don’t say this out of naiveté about our differences. They are real and they matter. And for our part, as Episcopalians, we understand our commitment to God’s radical love and justice is central to our life together. But that doesn’t mean we must hold on to the rancor. And I hope and pray that one day, our sad divisions may end—fully and finally—swept up in the joy the prophet describes.
I want to give you the same admonition my son John gave to me when we were carrying that refrigerator up the stairs in his dorm—if you find yourselves tempted to focus on former divisions—lift higher! If you find yourselves discouraged by the daunting task of re-opening this historic parish—lift higher! If you find yourselves wondering if we can move forward past divisions to be communities working alongside each other for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ, lift higher!
Our Lord will end our sad divisions in the church and in this world one step at a time—each time you and I respond in faith to his call to the humble and holy work of minding the light. May that work lead us to feed the hungry—as happens each week in the little building on the edge of our grounds. May that work lead us to clothe the naked, to lift up the oppressed and lend them our voices, to teach our children the way of love, to proclaim the way of light, of hope, of justice, of healing.
May we say “yes” to the invitation to follow the Lord of Life in this day, buoyed by the saints whose courageous lives of faith are written in walls, soaked in the earth that holds the trees, and whispered over the waters that flow in the marsh behind us. May we, each and everyone one, with every fiber of our being, follow the one who heals all divisions, who makes justice for all God’s children roll down like mighty waters, who makes the weary run again, who lifts our spirits like a heavy load up many stairs.
May we, each and every on, mind the light. For this is our sacred calling. AMEN.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.