I want to speak very simply today.
This is the weekend in which we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who had much more to say than you remember from that wonderful, “I Have a Dream“, speech.
And if you were Jewish, you’d also be remembering this weekend, King’s friend, another brilliant PhD – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who so deeply understood today’s passage from Isaiah, who saw in his Jewishness, in the Exodus story, the call to walk, literally, with all of God’s people – including American Blacks who were yearning to be free.
Both men knew in a profound way what it means to be called, to respond with a whole heart to the God who stands with the poor – in whatever poverty they find themselves: intellectual, social, spiritual, emotional as well as financial.
And both were sent as light – as illumination – as reflections of the brightness that is God, whom we also see in Jesus.
But it is only in looking backwards that Isaiah, or King, any of us, can say – “He knew me before I knew myself – before my mother named me, God called me.”
It is only in looking back over our years that we can see how our lives were filled with purpose and intention and goodness, how they blessed others.
But Isaiah, King, and Heschel were called to be literal, public prophets. Their voices will be heard for far longer than mine – or yours – and more widely.
Mine doesn’t have to compete with that kind of greatness.
Neither does yours.
Sometimes our culture, our churches, even our schools and families, try to make us feel that our lives are insignificant if we are not all “leaders.”
Celebrity culture insists that there are only a few singers or basketball players or actresses or preachers or writers or students who matter – and of course electricians and farmers, carpenters and computer programmers, doctors, sociologists and those who care for children aren’t even in the running.
But in fact, most of us aren’t celebrities – or public prophets.
And most of us don’t need to be, either.
Nor do we need to feel as if simply living ordinary lives in the wide spaces of mercy and grace and love, doing our ordinary work, enjoying our ordinary existence isn’t enough.
And it is in living our ordinary lives that we discover that each of us really does shine with the light of God’s glory.
We don’t need to be the best of anything.
We don’t need to compete.
We don’t need to compare ourselves to those whose public influence is immeasurably greater than our own.
Remember this: Dr King’s grandmother and her grandmother were enslaved women who nevertheless lived those painful lives well enough, with enough integrity and courage, who influenced their own children and grandchildren powerfully enough, to allow a Martin to emerge when it was the right time for the light that they carried, to shine in a public way through him.
Remember that all of Heschel’s Polish ancestors prayed and suffered repeated pogroms and waited for their light to shine out – not knowing who would bear it, or what it would look like when it did. And remember that when young Heschel was given one of only five visas for Polish Jewish intellectuals to come to the US just before the holocaust – he was chosen only because he was alone, being unmarried. No one was allowed to bring even a spouse. His ancestors’ light burned – and burns still – brightly on American soil, although every one of his family members left behind in Poland were murdered during the war.
The suffering of generations of Black enslavement.
The suffering of generations of anti-Semitic persecution.
And yet: the persistent living of ordinary lives under immense pressure, and the stubborn hope and faith and trust that it took to keep on keeping on when there seemed to be no reason to do so – no visible future – that is what produced those two men – and so many others.
It is even what produced an Isaiah.
He, and all Israel with him, felt as if their faithfulness to God, checkered and imperfect as it was, was for nothing.
They felt as if their ordinary, daily prayers and their repeated returning to God were pointless.
Despised, shamed, and rejected by the more powerful nations around them, Israel also felt the weight of despair.
And yet – day by day Isaiah’s ancestors trudged to the Temple and offered sacrifices and tried to obey God’s invitations – and taught their children to do it, too.
If they had not, if Isaiah’s unnamed great grandfather had not, who is to say whether an Isaiah would have appeared when it was time for their light to shine – for his voice to be heard?
Or what about John, the faithful son of faithful parents and grandparents – who was willing to say such dangerous things in a distressing period of Jewish history?
How do you suppose he got to be like that?
And what about his disciples, Andrew and Peter – who abandoned him for Jesus? How did they know to follow John in the first place, or when to leave John and follow a new rabbi?
They knew because day by day their parents and great grandparents, in ordinary conversation, in ordinary faithful teaching and living, their ancestors, their parents, and then John himself, had taught them to be on the look out for the One who would come after him – (because what we so often forget is that there is always going to be someone to come after).
Most of the days of the prophets‘ lives, the lives of those men and women we remember, including Isaiah’s, were ordinary days, filled with simple meals, simple prayer, suffering and sorrow, joy and celebration, sleep and work.
And so were the days of their unnamed, unremembered ancestors.
And so were our ancestors’.
And so are ours.
All is well.
And so we want to walk as children of Light: to follow as best we can, to let our light, which is God, shine before others.
And we want to trust that even the apparently ordinary light of our souls that shines as we live our ordinary lives does in fact enlighten others right now, sometimes in remarkable ways, and that it also already shines into the future we will not see,
because it does.
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