“Chautauqua, you know how to have a party. Last night was was full of flares, bells and fireworks. Then the flares started to go out and it was getting dark again. Now it is July 5,” said the Rev. Dr. J. Peter Holmes at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater.
His sermon title was “Light of the World,” and the Scripture lessons were Micah 6:6-8 and Matthew 5:13-16.
Holmes was out walking with his middle daughter one winter evening, and she asked why it was so dark. He tried to explain, scientifically, that the earth was rotating around the sun and the sun had set. He told her the sun would come back up in the morning. Then she asked, “How do you know that it has not burned out?”
Holmes said he could have again explained the phenomenon scientifically, that they would have frozen to death, but her question stuck with him. Are you sure?
“In the communion service we say, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,’ ” he said. “God is sovereign and Christ has won over death, but are you sure?”
Just before coming to Chautauqua Institution, Holmes received news from a friend that his cancer had relapsed and he would be starting treatment when he returned from vacation. A colleague of Holmes’ on the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church ministry team found out she had lung cancer two days after Christmas, and no matter how much people prayed, she just kept getting sicker.
“We have had July 4, but when will the candles come back on? How do you know the light has not burned out?” he said, in what became the mantra for his sermon.
When Holmes was a pastor in Montreal, his church was in the inner city and the membership reflected the variety of the population. One church member, Muriel, an African-Canadian, was very poor and whenever Holmes saw her in the grocery store and offered to help her, she would pull out her offering envelope and ask him to put it in the plate for her on Sunday; she could not be there, but she wanted to help him.
How do you know the light has not burned out?
“Jesus is the light of the world and the light shines in the darkness,” he said. “Jesus looks at us in the darkness and says, ‘You are the light.’ ”
Holmes thinks about the transfiguration when he thinks about the light. Jesus stood so clearly with Elijah and Moses on the mountaintop. God spoke and said, “This is my beloved son; listen to him.”
“When Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world,’ many people say, ‘Don’t tell me that; I don’t know where to start,’ ” Holmes said. “But Jesus continues to say, ‘Let your light shine.’ ”
Jesus could have stayed on the mountaintop, Holmes said, but he came down to walk through the low places.
“Jesus said, ‘Lo, I am with you to the end of the age,’ ” he said. “But I think of Jesus saying, ‘I have come to walk with you in the low places, the dark moments, to walk humbly with God.’ ”
How do you know the sun has not burned out, his daughter asked. Just then, on their walk, the moon came up. He told her to look at the moon because the moon tells us the sun has not burned out because it reflects the sun’s light.
“This is what Jesus meant: that his light would shine through you,” he said to the congregation.
Jesus said because I live, you will live, and light and life are interchangeable: “You are life, you are light.”
Holmes told the story of a house fire in a Toronto suburb. The basement apartment in the house was rented to some students, and one night they smelled smoke. One of the students, a 19-year old African-Canadian, went outside and saw the upper stories of the house billowing smoke. He kicked in the front door and heard crying. He got down on his hands and knees and started to crawl in, calling for the person to come out.
Then he remembered his cellphone; he held it out in the smoke and said, “Come to the light.” He saw some legs and reached out and grabbed a little girl.
“He was holding the light in the darkness, but what if his batteries weren’t juiced?” Holmes asked. “This is why we need to stay close to Jesus: so the light can shine, so we can call people to the light.”
As his colleague with lung cancer continued to get sicker, it became clear that the cancer wanted the last word. But she lived in the light of Christ, Holmes said, and she had a glow about her. She had a hospital roommate who yelled all night, but her concern was for the staff, to whom she said, “You must have had a rough night.”
“Nothing can separate us from the light,” Holmes said. “God has the final word of light, life and love. That shone through her and you saw the light in her.”
Muriel, Holmes’ congregation member, died one summer and about two weeks after her funeral a “40-ish, white businessman” came to Holmes’ office to ask about her. He had been trying to find her and Holmes said she had died.
The businessman shared his story of his encounter with Muriel. He met her coming out of the grocery store and saw her struggling with her bags. The man offered to drive her home. When he saw where she lived, he offered to do something to help her once a week. She said she would like him to do something for her once a day — she would pray for him and he would pray for her.
He had forgotten how to pray, and he learned again. He started to read spiritual books, and whenever he saw Muriel, she would tell him she was praying for him.
“She changed me, she invited me into the light,” the man told Holmes.
We might think the darkness is too much, Holmes said, but we can hold up the light, the life, the walk and the dance.
“Jesus has a way of inviting others,” Holmes said. “He is speaking to the world. That is the light in the darkness that cannot be put out.”
The Rev. Dan McKee presided. Krisztian Hager, who is from Beregszasz, Ukraine, and studies biology at Ferenc Rákóczi II Transcarpathian Hungarian Institute, read the Scripture. He is also a first-year student at Baptist Theological Academy in Budapest. He speaks Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and English and is the director for the Second Chance of the Sub-Carpathian Ukraine Goodwill Foundation, where he has organized multifaceted and wide-ranging family programs for the community. The anthem, “Holy is the Light,” by Gerald Near, was sung by the Motet Choir under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music. The Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion provide support for this week’s services.