Longing for Light

By The Rev. Lindsey Altvater Clifton

Gwendolyn Lo was born in Hawaii on July 25, 1932 to parents who were Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and Korean.  For some portion of her childhood, she lived with her auntie Ellyn and her uncle Hiram; she was even a flower girl in their wedding.  In Honolulu sometime before 1959, she met and married Ira Sanders, a race car driver from South Carolina, and they left Hawaii for the mainland as they started a family.

Around that same time, Hawaii achieved statehood and her uncle, Hiram Fong, became the first Asian American Senator of the United States.  Gwendolyn Lo was my maternal grandmother.  Mamaw, as I called her.  We were inseparable.  Partners in crime from the beginning to the end.  Losing her to lung cancer in 2012 was one of the things that nudged me back in the direction of church life after being mostly spiritual-but-not-religious since graduating from college in 2009.  But that’s a story for another day.

Today, I share this bit of her story (and mine) because while I had an easy relationship with Mamaw, I have a more complicated relationship with her identity as an Asian American Pacific Islander.  Especially this week after a young church-going white man shot and killed eight people across the greater Atlanta metro area, six of whom were Asian and Pacific Islander American women.  As one reflection from another Presbyterian clergy person noted: “It is textbook sexism, racism, objectification and misogynistic violence.” (Rev. Laura Mariko Cheifetz).

Somehow the four-generation span and continental divide between Senator Hiram Fong and me couldn’t seem any farther.  Even though my mom, and her sister and brother, my aunt and uncle, all three look more ethnically Asian American Pacific Islander than I do, even their upbringing was in the context of white extended family and community.  And I am definitely a white kid.  From the south.  Who picked up all the standard-issue privilege and racial bias of such an environment lacking in much exposure to ethnic difference or self-reflection about race until college and missing any intersectional, anti-racist education until divinity school.

I’m also a white kid from the south who spent much of their childhood in faith communities that steeped young people in toxic purity culture and all the sexuality shaming and repression that go with it.  So if I’m being honest, I have far more in common with the perpetrator of Tuesday’s murders – and those who’ve committed so many American hate crimes or acts of domestic terrorism – than with the victims.

And while it can be tempting to distance myself from this connection, I dare not.  For if I can’t see the ways in which some of my own experiences are just a few degrees of separation from the kind of lethal ideologies that motivate such acts, then I’m not willing to examine the truth deeply enough.  As painful and uncomfortable as it may be, I believe that is our call as white people of faith in solidarity with our neighbors who are people of color.

We cannot bury our heads to the existence of systems which privilege our whiteness, and we cannot ignore the suffering, violence, and injustice that such systems perpetuate against marginalized communities.  We cannot be the light we long for if we aren’t willing to plumb the depths of our darkest realities, which takes courage and humility.

We want to see Jesus in our midst.  But are we willing to follow him?  We long for light in the darkness.  But are we willing to do the inner work to embody it?

Today’s gospel text offers us fertile soil to consider such questions.  We enter the story of John at a strange point.  Strange to us in this present liturgical moment, at least, because well, Palm Sunday is next week.  Yet for some reason the lectionary (that three-year cycle of scripture selections that guides us through the church year) gives us a chunk of John that occurs after Jesus’ palm parade and entry into Jerusalem.

So today we imagine ourselves having seen Lazarus raised from the dead; having been at the table while Mary (one of Lazarus’ sisters) anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive, fragrant nard; having heard the Hosannas and watched Jesus’ donkey ride into the city.  We are gathered with the crowd of folks who’ve been following Jesus since his most recent resurrection miracle.

And in this moment, the Pharisees’ concern about what reaction Jesus will provoke from the Roman empire against their community has reached a fever pitch: “Look! The whole world is following him!” we overhear them say just before this passage.  In fact, along with the chief priests, they’ve already given orders for his whereabouts to be reported so that he might be arrested.

As word travels about what people have seen Jesus do and heard him say, others are curious or even compelled to experience him for themselves.   Little do they know, this is to be Jesus’ final public teaching, and it’s delivered to a diverse crowd.  People from all over have come to the city for the festival of Passover.  Jews and Gentiles, Galileans and Judeans.  Apparently, even Greeks…they want to see Jesus.

So they find Philip, who tells Andrew, and together they share the request with Jesus.  And Jesus’ response is…well, very Jesus…sorta strange in that “You had to be there” kind of way.  Which Philip and Andrew know well.  As New Testament scholar Rev. Dr. Mary Hinkle Shore reminds us:

In John, seeing and hearing are the ways people come to know Jesus, to believe or trust in him, and to recognize his unity and singleness of purpose with [God]. The opening verse of [this] gospel reading take us back to chapter one, when Jesus said to Andrew, “Come and see,” and to Philip, “Follow me.”

It has to be experienced.  With multiple senses.  In the flesh.  Which makes sense given the incarnational miracle of our faith: Jesus is God-with-us, Word made flesh.  And John has been reminding us of this from his very first words:

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.

God in human form.  With multiple senses.  So seeing and hearing is believing, and with the gathered crowd, we want to see Jesus.  But what does he think about all this?

“The time has come for the Human One to be glorified,” he responds.  And I love how The Message’s paraphrase renders the next words out of Jesus’ mouth: “Anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal. 26 If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me. Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice.”

So we ask ourselves, do we have eyes to see; ears to hear; and hearts, minds, and bodies willing to follow—reckless in our love and letting go of life just as it is?

Maybe the gathered crowd was still pondering this question underneath Jesus’ question, too, when a voice from heaven testifies of God’s glory to the people.  Some thought it was thunder, others thought the voice was speaking to Jesus.  They have ears, but don’t quite hear.  So Jesus clears up their misunderstanding again.  “That wasn’t for my benefit but for yours.”

Here’s what some of them, and likely some of us, are still figuring out: to see Jesus, to really see him, and to hear Jesus, to really hear him…it asks something of us.  And not just a little something.  But a big, life transforming something.  To be present to the Word made Flesh is to develop an inner longing for light in the darkness.  It is a tug that is never totally quieted unless we are following the way of Jesus’ reckless love.

John reminds us of this over and over again in his Gospel:

What came into being
    through the Word was life,
and the life was the light for all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

And shortly after today’s text, Jesus reminds us of this again, too, as he tells the crowd: “The light is with you for only a little while. Walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness don’t know where they are going.”

We have eyes, but do we see?  We have ears, but do we hear? We want to see Jesus.  But are we willing to follow him?  We long for light in the darkness.  But are we willing to embody it?  Perhaps even more pointedly, do we know the difference between light and dark?  Are we willing to hold ourselves accountable when we are sources of both?

Rev. Laura Mariko Cheifetz wrote a powerful reflection on the events of the week.  She is a multiracial Asian American of Japanese and white Jewish descent and a member of the LGBTQ community.  She’s a Presbyterian clergy person and the Assistant Dean of Admissions, Vocation, and Stewardship at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  I share her words as those of someone inside the community impacted since I am not.  Here are the concluding words of her piece:

“The tale of racist and White supremacist violence in the United States has a narrative arc in the popular imagination. It begins with a violent act, catching dominant culture by surprise. This shock is treated as an exception. It was a bad day, after all, for the perpetrator, and he was at the end of his rope. It is declared that this one-off incident is a bad apple problem. It is “not who we are.” And eventually, it is forgotten.  But this is exactly who we are as a country,” she writes.

“There is another narrative arc,” she continues, “For those of us who live and love in this country, and are told we are never fully American, the violent act feels familiar. We feel rage and fear. We worry about the family members left behind, the people behind the businesses impacted. We know this is who this country is, and who we are to it: the perpetual foreigner.”

She concludes, “And we will not be able to heal until we begin to acknowledge American civilization is made up of shredded pieces of the lives of vulnerable people.”

Friends, that truth is light in the darkness.  If only we are willing to see it.  That truth is the voice of God speaking for our benefit.  If only we are willing to hear it.  And if we want to see Jesus, we must be willing to follow him.  Time and again he trekked to every margin, shared the table with every outcast; time and again he befriended the stranger and lifted up the vulnerable; time and again he brought healing to the wounded and wholeness to that which was broken – broken spirits, broken systems, broken communities.

Word made flesh.  Love made flesh.  Light made flesh.

We long for light in the darkness, dear ones.  If we examine the darkness, if we commit to the inner work, we might just find…and even embody…the light.  May it be so.  This day and each day.  Amen.

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