Peace and the Light of Christ in the Unbearable Night | 1 January 2017 | Epiphany

Speaker: Sarah Werner

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar in New Haven, Connecticut called “The Gospel of Peace in Dynamic Engagement with the Peace of Islam.” It was led by David Shenk, a Mennonite scholar and missionary with a lifetime of experience dialoguing with Muslims throughout the world. I thought about sharing some of the academic sorts of things I learned about Islamic theology and practice, but I would encourage you instead to read about this on your own. Understanding the beliefs and practices of our Muslim neighbors is important and something we all need to do, but I want to offer a more personal reflection this morning. What stayed with me the most from my week wasn’t the history or theology of Islam. It was the spirit of hospitality, new ideas of what the witness of Christ means, and what is at stake for Muslims and Christians here and throughout the world.

This is also a very appropriate topic to delve into on this Sunday when we celebrate the Epiphany of Christ. Epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaneia, which means “revelation” or “manifestation.” The light of Christ is manifested in the star of Bethlehem seen by the magi. Matthew tells us that these wise men have journeyed “from the East,” drawn by a star that they interpret as signaling the birth of the Messiah. Though they weren’t Jews, or even Israelites, they understood the star to be a signal of change in the world and they wanted to be a part of it.

The story of the magi is often interpreted as an indication that the gospel is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews, for all the nations. The Matthew text hints back to this passage of Isaiah. Isaiah promises that people will come from far off lands bringing gold and frankincense “and “shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” In Matthew we have the story of the wise men from the East bringing gifts to the young Jesus to “pay him homage.” This echoes the Isaiah passage that says that Israel will be a light for all nations. This text from Isaiah was written to the Israelites when they had just returned from exile as a promise of things to come. They returned to a land ravaged and desolate. The world felt bleak and hopeless. “Arise, shine, for your light has come” is an assurance of restoration and the ability of the returning refugees to create a new society. Instead of being torn apart by war, God promises that Israel will be a land where nations can gather together.

And in the background of this story is the terrorism of the Roman Empire and more locally the terror of Herod. The violence of the Roman occupation is the background of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the story of his beginning is no exception. The magi bring gifts to Jesus with Herod lurking in the shadows of the story, ready to destroy his perceived enemies. In Matthew the story directly following the retelling of the epiphany is the one where Herod orders all male children under the age of two to be slaughtered, causing the holy family to flee to Egypt. Jesus’ gospel of peace is even more profound when we consider the violence of the society around him.

While we are no longer ruled by an empire (one could argue that we are the empire), the threat of violence and terrorism is ever-present. Terrorism also lurks in the background of our time, threatening to tear apart ordinary lives in ordinary places, markets and parades and workplaces. Terrorism and war are the reason many of our Muslim neighbors have sought refuge in the US, though Muslims are often portrayed in our media as only terrorists, not peaceful people.

Several of the seminar participants shared about their own experiences of religious terrorism. One of the mission workers shared that during the Serbian war in Sarajevo ethnic Serbs who were Christian, were fighting ethnic Bosnians, who were Muslim. The Serbian army would invade Bosnian villages and kill everyone, branding crosses on the chests of their victims. Where we see in the cross an example of the willingness of God to suffer in order to overcome death, there are many that see the cross as a symbol of oppression, of terrorism, like burning crosses in front of the homes of black families in the 60s.

The last few months have seen a dramatic increase in hate crime and incidents of violence based on race and religion in our own time and place, a different kind of terrorism. In their December issue The Mennonite magazine featured a short reflection by Isaac Villegas about the night after the presidential election entitled “Our Unbearable Night.” Villegas, a pastor in Chapel Hill, NC, spoke about the many acts of racial hatred that happened that night around the country against women, people of color, and Muslims. He writes, “at church small group, a friend who teaches junior high tells me about his students, black and brown girls and boys, all of them scared and crying, fearful of the brazen racism that has been unleashed in the national affirmation of a Trump presidency. ‘What do I tell them tomorrow?’ he asks me.”

It is in the midst of this night that the light of Christ breaks through in the epiphany story. One of the main things I gained in talking with people at the seminar was a greater understanding of what it means to bear witness to the light of Christ in my own life. Part of witnessing the light of Christ in the world is demonstrating the nonviolent heart of the Gospels to the world. What the world sees of Christianity through the media is not nonviolence, but power and judgment. Witnessing to the light of Christ does not have to mean converting people to Christianity. It means living our faith publically and nonviolently. It means giving testament to the power of nonviolence and God’s love for all of creation.

Just as we share the light of our own faith, we should also recognize the light of other traditions. Islam offers much light to the world. One of the driving beliefs of many Muslims is that Allah calls them to create a house on earth for Allah’s coming reign. They are concerned in turn with caring for the poor and creating a just and egalitarian society. In addition the Quran says that Allah has created many cultures and religions, and that Muslims are called to live as a peaceful people in a pluralistic world. Muslims honor the Hebrew Bible and Christian gospels as holy texts, and we should do the same in honoring their tradition as one branch of the Abrahamic faith, as the magi did in visiting and honoring the Christ child.

Genuine dialogue is incredibly rare and antithetical to the current political climate. You only have to turn on the news to view the results of a failure of differing groups to communicate. We mostly speak to people who share our same worldview and who already agree with us. Instead of reaching out in dialogue, we easily become entrenched in our own ideas and fears. This fear easily manifests in distrust of refugees and their religion. This terroristic threat is the very thing they are running away from, but we forget this in our own fear. The perception of Islam in the media is overwhelmingly negative. There are headlines daily about acts of terrorism, state-sponsored violence, and political unrest by Muslims or in Muslim countries. In the same way that popular culture displays Christianity as the religion of power and judgment, the media portrays Islam as intrinsically violent.  Part of our responsibility as people of faith is understanding and appreciating the light that shines from other religions. As with our efforts to confront and undo racism, we must first start with our own biases and beliefs.

Though I did not have the opportunity to meet or learn from any Muslim people at the seminar, I was deeply moved by the hospitality I received from the other participants, many of whom are residents for the year. On the whole they are much more socially and theologically conservative than I am, but we shared fellowship with one another and I had the chance to dialogue with Christians from diverse backgrounds. To illustrate this I’d like to share a story from my journal during that time.

It is the last afternoon of the seminar, a cloudy winter day with sunset already fast approaching. This week we’ve been tucked in an attic room, bathed in the winter daylight through the slanted roof windows, hearing stories about dialoguing in faith with Muslims, sometimes with life or death consequences. I was invited to lunch earlier today by an Indian missionary couple. I felt blessed to share a meal with them, wonderful hearty South Indian dishes and good conversation. And at the end before I left he asked if they could pray with me. They asked for God to protect me on my journey and inspire me in my work. This is not an everyday part of my life. I have felt blessed by being here this week and have found my faith renewed, which is not what I expected in attending an academic seminar. I have been part of a truly international community of Christians. Last night at the Christmas party we sang Joy to the World, some in English, some in their own native language. Singing this song always brings tears to my eyes, and especially last night. For many of the people here being a Christian can be dangerous, my Indian friends included. Here in the US the tables are turned—it is dangerous to be Muslim here, not because we lack the legal protection of religious freedom, but because we as Americans often do not honor the value of the other. Being a Christian here, for me, is easy and does not require much sacrifice. There is much more at stake for many, but here I have felt loved in a way that I don’t experience quite as much with my own progressive Christian friends. I wonder if it would not be as comfortable if I were to live out my faith by sheltering illegal immigrants or standing in the way of violent conflict, as those from Christian Peacemaker teams do.

I want to end by suggesting that we might do well to engage more with our Muslim neighbors and coworkers here in Columbus. Our city is home to the second largest Somali community in the US. I don’t know exactly what this greater connection might look like, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

Epiphany is representative of the light of the sun slowly returning to the world in the depths of dark winter. As we welcome the turn of the earth slowly toward the light, I hope we can also bear witness to the light of Christ in our fear-filled world. The mission workers I encountered shared the love of Christ with me in tangible ways, and it is my responsibility to share the light of my own tradition of nonviolence. Like both the Israelites returning from exile and the wise men from the East, we look forward to a time when nations will come together and the light will return, even as terror and fear linger in the background.