I do not know if any of you have heard of the Amish. A few years ago I was fortunate enough, during a visit to New York, to visit an Amish community for the first time on their farms in Pennsylvania. The Amish arrived in America after migrating from Europe in the Eighteenth Century, and the lives which they live now are virtually unchanged from the lives of their ancestors. They are caught in a self-imposed and self-regulated time lock.
As you enter areas in which the Amish Christians live you know immediately that there is something different about them. The traffic moves much slower as it tries to avoid the horse drawn buggies which they drive, because they will not ride in motor vehicles. When you approach their houses you notice that these homes and the barns around them have been built in a very traditional style. The Amish dress in the clothes of their forefathers, without buttons and without mixing colours, and they live the lives of their forefathers too, working on the farm and in the bakery in order to survive. Because they are conscious that they are only visitors in this world, passing through to their heavenly home, they try as hard as they can to make very few connections with this world.
Amish children are educated at home, and only to an elementary level, they marry within their community, and few ever leave. The Amish worship in the German dialect which they brought with them from Europe. Because of the immense links between their culture and their faith few people ever join them. They pay no taxes, they do not vote and they take no services from the state.
In order to not be tied to the world they have traditionally resisted the physical ties of electricity. So their fridges are powered by bottled gas. When it became clear that some Amish needed the use of telephones it was agreed that telephones were permissible, but only if they were outside of the house. So booths have been constructed where members of the community are able to make calls, but sufficiently far away from the house for the ring of the telephone to not be heard inside. Just in case you are imagining them to be a small group, there are about 180,000 of them in America at the present time.
In our Gospel reading this morning we hear Jesus saying to his disciples, “you are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.”
The Amish way of life is one model of how those words of Jesus can be lived out. We can separate ourselves from the community around us, we can live apart as a sign to others, as a faithful remnant of the people of God. The Amish are known for their holiness of life, and are revered for it. They shine as a light in the world, but they shine from a distance.
On Wednesday of last week the Church around the world, including us Anglicans here in the Diocese of Newcastle said goodbye to our Christmas celebrations for another year. For the people who live around us there was a great build up to the Christmas festivities which all ended for them within a few days of the 25th December. But for us who are members of the Church Christmas Day was only the beginning of our Christmas celebrations. For the last forty days we have continued to celebrate the coming of God amongst us, the incarnation, in the form of the baby in the manger in that humble stable over 2,000 years ago. Last Wednesday this season of our Christmas celebrations came to its conclusion for this year in the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (what some of us may know better as Candlemass), at which we remember Jesus being presented by his parents in the Temple, to the joy of Simeon and Anna who recognise him, even as a baby, to be the hope of the world. Even though the Sundays of Epiphany continue for a few more weeks, we now begin to prepare ourselves for the Season of Lent, and for the Easter mysteries (the climax of our faith) which will follow after our Lenten journey.
Whilst we Christians have been celebrating our festival of Christmas, Jews around the world, including the small Jewish community here in the Upper Hunter, have been marking their celebration of Chanukah. Those who study a range of religions call both of these celebrations (Christmas and Chanukah) “festivals of light” – opportunities when groups of the faithful come together to bring light into the darkness. We have to remember, of course, that both of these festivals were positioned at this time in the year in the northern hemisphere, where it is literally cold, and gloomy and dark and in need of light at the moment.
When Jews celebrate Chanukah, they remember another story from the Temple. Not the story of the light of Jesus shining out to Anna and Simeon as he is presented there, but the story of the miraculous light in the Temple, about two hundred years earlier before the birth of Jesus. The story goes something like this: the Jewish community had been fighting for survival during the reign of King Antiochus, who had tried by force to dissuade them from continuing in their faith, and instead to follow pagan religions. Following the last battle, when the Jews had had the final victory, they set about tidying up the Temple and preparing it for worship once again.
When everything was ready they lit the light of the presence, the oil lamp which burnt day and night in the Temple to symbolise the presence of God, but having lit it they found that they only had enough oil for it to burn for one day. So they sent out for more oil, which would take an eight day journey to reach them, and yet whilst they waited for the oil to arrive the candle continued to burn, into day four, and day five, and day six, and day seven, until finally the new oil could be added on the eighth day. That miraculous event which is remembered every year in their Festival of Chanukah reminds Jewish people of the faithfulness of God to them, and so they continue to celebrate it each year, just as we continue to celebrate the saving acts of God in our own tradition. I grew up in an area of London which had the second largest concentration of Jews in the world, and so seeing a Christmas tree and an eight branched candle stand, the menorah (the Jewish symbol for their celebration) side by side has always seemed quite normal to me. The flame of the candle keeping the tradition alive.
Jesus says in our Gospel reading this morning, “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
I must admit that I am romantically attached to candles, but it seems to me that too often we can be more concerned about keeping the small candle, the small oil lamp aflame within our churches, than we are concerned about mobilising and organising ourselves so that the light shines outside of our churches and across this great Hunter valley. The Jewish story of Chanukah is a wonderful sign of the faithfulness of God, but it is also a story-picture of the reality of some of our experiences of the Church. At the end of the day it all boils down to keeping things inside our buildings going. Maintaining what we have, so that the light doesn’t go out in our churches, faithfully keeping the candle alight to re-assure us that God is present with us.
After the Eucharist this morning, Mandy and I will be meeting with the Parish Council and the Parish Ministry Team to intentionally plan for ministry from this place in the coming year. Planning and visioning for our future ministry is not just something that we do once every ten years, it is a continual cycle of seeking to understand what God is calling us to do now, for his people who gather here, and for the wider community, which he loves in equal measure.
Of course, it makes no sense to light a lamp and then hide it under a bucket, Jesus did not need to be the Son of God to work that one out. We do not turn on a light in our homes and then cover it over so that we are back in darkness, but sometimes in our churches we do so cover over the good news of God in Jesus that it’s very hard for anyone who is not a “member of our club” to hear it in a language which they can understand. Although we might think that the Amish are a bit strange, if we are really honest, our churches are a lot like the way that they live their lives. It is not quite so obvious of course, but we become so caught up in our own business that we can be tempted to not move beyond the boundaries of our church community. We put so much effort into keeping the one lamp burning, that we forget that no one outside of our church buildings can see it.
The point of all of this, in case I have not spelt it out clearly enough, is that what Jesus says in our Gospel reading this morning should be absolutely transforming for each one of us. We are familiar with the idea that Jesus is the light of the world, it is probably a phrase that you have heard often in this Church over the years. But the writers of Matthew’s Gospel remember him saying something quite different, and altogether more challenging in the encounter that we heard this morning. Jesus doesn’t say, “I am the light of the world,” although of course he is. He says, “you are the light of the world.” He is not pointing at himself in a mirror, he is pointing at you and me.
“Pat,” he says, “now that you are joined to my life and death and resurrection through your baptism in me, you are the light of the world… Sue, Allan, Barbara, Michael, … you are the light of the world. The light of Jesus, for the world, and particularly for the people of Merriwa and Cassilis.” That is why the earliest Christians called themselves, “Children of Light.” What was true for them, is true for us today.
It is as if Jesus says to us, as he hears us singing that popular modern Graham Kendrick hymn ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ “I have done my shining, I shone in the Temple to Simeon and Anna, I shone throughout my ministry as the sick were healed and the dead were raised, I shone on the cross and in the glory of the resurrection. Now it is time for you to shine. To shine with the fullness of the joy of believing, to shine outside the walls of your churches in your local communities. To shine as you introduce your friends to my good news. To shine as you help the poor, and those on the margins of society.
This morning Jesus says to each one of us, “You are the light of the world, my light. It is your time to shine for me.” Quite how we do that most effectively is the agenda for our Parish Council and Parish Ministry Team meeting after this Eucharist this morning.
Shine people of the Parish of Merriwa, fill this land with the light of Jesus.