Light to the Nations

Rev. Mark Schaefer
January 19, 2020
Isaiah 49:1–7; John 1:29–42


I used to have an apartment with a walk-in closet. Well, it was more of a walk-through closet on the way to the bathroom, but it was reasonably spacious and a convenient place to get dressed in the morning.

One such morning, I noticed that the light bulb was out in the closet. No matter—there was enough light coming in from the adjacent rooms to be able to dress myself appropriately. Or so I thought until I got halfway down my block toward work and realized that I was wearing a green suit jacket with blue suit pants. They had appeared identical in the low light of the walk-in but starkly different in the bright light of day. It’s amazing how different the world can look when you don’t have enough light to see.

word cloud of sermon text

Image courtesy Wordle

That’s one reason why driving at dusk is so dangerous, without sufficient light from the sun and with not enough contrast generated by your headlights, the landscape fades into a kind of sameness that makes it difficult to discern hazards.

Some religious traditions even make use of this phenomenon to demarcate when a day has truly ended. In some versions of Islam, the daily fast during Ramadan happens when you can no longer tell the difference between the leaves and the trees—a sign that the light of day is truly gone and night has set in.


Fulfilling All Righteousness

Rev. Mark Schaefer
January 12, 2020
Isaiah 42:1–9; Matthew 3:13–17


One of my college roommates, and best friends to this day, is an Iranian Jew, who emigrated with his family sometime in the mid-late 70’s at the age of ten.

One year, he had some business in town and he came down to visit the night before. It was Easter Sunday and there wasn’t much open. As we drove home from my Easter services that night, I tried to think of a good place for us to get some food. “Ah!” I remembered, “Moby Dick! They’re open. At least the one in Georgetown.” “What is it?” he asked. “It’s Persian; you’ll like it.”

So he looked up the number and called them to make sure they were still open. They answered and he began to greet them in Persian. They responded. He said something again. And on this went for a minute. I was perplexed. We weren’t ordering anything, we just wanted to find out when they closed. Finally, he hung up, turned to me and said, “In Persian you can never just say, ‘What time are you open till?’ You always have to go through all this nonsense—‘I apologize for disturbing you…’ even when it’s a business.”

So, he’d spent the better part of a minute just getting to the point where he could ask them how late they were open. Anthropologists call that a “high context culture.”

But it also strikes me of the kind of ritual formality that you encounter in religion all the time. Things that matter often involve some measure of ritual and rite. I mean, you would all think it odd if for communion I just stood at the front of the sanctuary and said, “So, anyway, here’s some bread and grape juice; help yourselves.”

A similar thing happens in military contexts. A couple of years ago a friend of mine retired from the navy and asked me to give the benediction at has change of command ceremony. I was impressed at the lengths that the navy went to to effect all the requirements of protocol, even going so far as to build a plank for the admiral to “come aboard” on, even though the entire ceremony was below decks. Indeed, having seen all the protocol and ceremony, it would’ve been strange if the admiral had just said, “Thanks for everything, Doug; we’ve got it from here.”

Often, there are formalities we go through before we get to the substance of the matter.


Who Are These People?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
January 5, 2020—Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1–6; Matthew 2:1–12


Every comedian has a particular style, a particular way of speaking, and often a set of catch phrases that define their comedy.

From Jack Benny’s “Now, cut that out!” to George Burns’ “Say goodnight, Gracie” to Steve Martin’s “Excuuuuuse me!” to Rodney Dangerfield’s “I get no respect” to Larry the Cable Guy’s “Git ’er done!” to Bill Engvald’s “Here’s your sign” to George Carlin’s, well, George Carlin doesn’t really have a catch phrase and even if he did, I don’t think I could say it in church.

But then there is Jerry Seinfeld’s “Who are these people?” It’s a phrase so associated with Jerry Seinfeld that it’s kind of come to define his comedy, even if it’s hard to find a clip of him actually saying it.

But the line is used something like this: “Have you ever seen these people who put on the Star Wars costumes and wait in line all night for a movie ticket? Who are these people?” Whether or not Jerry used this as much as we remember him doing so, the phrase has come to represent the kind of sarcastic observational humor that he is known for.

“Have you ever seen people who drink grape juice instead of wine for communion? Who are these people?”

But there is a reason that that particular line has been in my head this week; and it’s because of the Gospel text we heard earlier.