Sunday, January 09, 2000

Sermon Meditation Preached by
The Rev. John Harries
on the first Sunday in Epiphany, January 9, 2000.

Scripture Readings:
Genesis 32: 22-30a
Isaiah 45:3-7

Text: " I will give you treasures in the dark ...”
Isaiah 45:3a

Prayer: God of Epiphany Light,
may your Word now be spoken,
may your Word now be heard,
may we discover treasures in the dark. Amen.

You can wake up now! It's January 9th, year 2000. We have made it to the twenty-first century. The infamous Y2K bug was a non-event. Planes did not fall out of the sky. Nuclear missiles did not misfire. Bank machines did not crash. The lights did not go out. The generators and batteries had to be returned - - and it only cost a trillion dollars (U.S.) to stem the global darkness. If only that were true!

Just a few minutes past midnight, a young father from Regent Park who had brought his sick son to the St. Michael's Emergency Ward was shot dead by police while he used a pellet gun to hold a doctor hostage. And within a few hours, two city cab drivers had been murdered. Despite all the millennium fireworks and frivolity, it was as if nothing had changed. Violence is still violence. Illness is still illness. Evil is still evil. Death is still death. The human struggle is still the human struggle. We may know how to keep the lights on but who is going to illuminate the dark sides of our humanity?

Remember Jacob in a story that dates back to the beginning of time? All night long, he struggles in the darkness with a powerful and mysterious presence who will not let him rest. In the process, he finds himself. He receives a new name, a sacred identity. He discovers that he belongs to God. But in this life-changing transformation, Jacob is wounded in the thigh.

The encounter leaves him with a limp, the realization that suffering is a permanent part of our human experience. And to this day, biblical scholars speculate. Does the stranger in the night who confronts Jacob represent the appearance of God? Or does the mysterious figure symbolize the power of evil that leaves us wounded and weak? Might it simply be his brother Esau? Or does the after-dark assailant symbolize Jacob's own inner struggle with his personal demons? ( Genesis 32: 22- 30a ) You can take your pick or try all four!

If the stranger represents all of the above, the wisdom of this account goes something like this. As we do battle with the darkness of our time; and also as we grapple with our own woundedness and suffering; and also as we struggle with who we are in relation to others, we experience the Light of God's Presence face to face. It was Jacob's Epiphany - an unexpected divine revelation for his life.

I like the way that the great prophet Isaiah expresses the truth that God sent to Jacob. Listen! “I am going to give you treasures in the dark... ( Isaiah 45:3a ) those who are walking in the darkness have seen a bright light, it is shining on everyone who lives in the land of dark shadows, a child has been born for us, his power will never end, his peace will last forever, he rules with honesty and justice.” (Isaiah 9: 2- 7 ) “His life was filled with sorrow and suffering. But by his wounds, we have all been healed." ( Isaiah 53: 3-5 )

Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen was one of the great spiritual writers of the twentieth century. More than any other, he has helped us to understand how it is possible for treasures to turn up in the dark. His best-known book is The Wounded Healer.

“... The way out is the way in,” he writes. “Only by entering into communion with human suffering can relief be found. ... Every Christian is invited to find in the fellowship of suffering the way to freedom. ... Jesus' broken body is the way to new life. We are called not only to care for our own wounds and the wounds of others, but also to make our wounds a source of healing power. This is the announcement of the wounded healer: 'The Master is coming - not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery is passed, but in the middle of it...'” 1

At Nouwen's funeral at the Cathedral of Utrecht in 1996, his close friend Jean Vanier gave the eulogy. “There was a mystery in Henri,” he said. “He was a man of great vision and pain. He announced something very important: that unity in our church will spring from the poor. ... He chose to walk through pain because it is the road of all of us ... never will we discover resurrection unless we walk through the cross, unless somewhere we are stripped.” 2

Through a posthumous volume entitled Wounded Prophet which was published last year, the world has realized the extent and depth of Nouwen's despair. While he was resident theologian at the Daybreak Community in Richmond Hill, he was regularly returning to England to be guided through his darkest night. This is how one of Nouwen's spiritual counsellors describes his darkness.

“His wound was large and deep... it was very, very dark indeed. ...This was not just a dark night of the soul, it was a dark night of everything, of the spirit, at the point of his own being, desires, longings, and sexuality. It was a dark night at the point of his own calling, work and writing. But Henri Nouwen didn't lose his faith.” 3

Neither did the girl in the picture - the subject of one of the most disturbing and indelible photographs of the last century. It was taken on the eighth of June, 1972. Within hours, it appeared as front page news around the world. A naked and wounded nine-year-old Kim Phuc was captured on film, screaming in horror, running down the main street of her village in Vietnam. Her body had been splashed and burned by napalm ash. This morning, Kim Phuc is alive and reasonably well. She lives in Toronto. She has become a devout Christian. She is a teacher. She is happily married with a young son. How is this possible?

I received Kim Phuc's biography for Christmas. It's called The Girl In The Picture. It's the hope-filled story of epiphany after epiphany, treasure after treasure of wounded healers in the darkest and longest night that anyone could imagine - - loving parents and devoted grandparents, supportive siblings and caring friends, kind neighbours and courageous journalists, dedicated doctors and teachers, determined care-givers and generous donors - - all of whom God uses to communicate love and compassion amidst the horrors and aftermath of the Vietnam war.

“Without my faith, I am nothing, thought Kim. Yet, as she continued to feel herself losing ground and dreading her future, the all-too-familiar suffering returned. With each anxious night, it kept building, building in her, to the breaking point Then, one day, the pressure to contain it simply vanished. Her epiphany came when she brought to mind a parable. It was about a beautiful bird that lived in the forest. A hunter who fancied the bird for its plumage and song, trapped it and kept it in a cage. No more, Kim told herself. She had faith that at the right moment, God would open a door of escape. Her mission from then on, was to create opportunities for God to appear.” 4

That's our calling this Epiphany Sunday as we come to the table as wounded healers to celebrate the Presence of God in the broken body of Christ our Healer and Christ our Friend.

But let me be personal. I have quoted from several books this morning but this sermon started somewhere deep within my soul. I know a little, and perhaps a lot, about treasures in the dark. I remember the darkest time of my own life when I was learning the hard way that all could be lost. The mid-life pendulum had swung to the shadow side. Everything was at risk. And out of that time of demons and despair with the help of faith, family and friends came resolve and determination never to go there, to come back, to come home. I know something about suffering. This sermon comes from the graveside of the beloved grandmother and mother who our family lost a few weeks ago, it comes from the sudden death of my sister last year, and of my parents not long before. And it comes from the faith-building inspiration of working here at Eaton Memorial as I watch so many of you becoming wounded healers as you are found by Spirit-filled treasures during your darkest days.

As difficult as the darkness always is, I do not fear it. I know that God is there as I struggle to love myself and others. And I know why I hold this truth so deeply. It's my first and earliest epiphany, the kind of recollection that shapes a life.

I was here in Toronto during the second World War. I must have been about three, or perhaps four. I can remember the air-raid sirens screaming in the night. I can recall my childhood terror and fright. But I can also remember that my mother was always there. I was never left alone with the sirens. I would be lying by her side. Her arm was always around me. I can still hear her voice. I don't remember what she said but they were words of comfort, my first recollection of treasure in the dark. And today, fifty some years later, on that unconditional foundation of hope, a faith has been built, an absolute trust that nothing ? even the darkness itself ? can separate us from God's love.

This week, I have been asked to visit with a young man in our community who has just, been diagnosed with cancer. When we get together tomorrow night, our mission, by the Light of Christ, will be to limp along, to struggle as wounded healers, to be found, by treasurers in the dark!


  1. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer. Image Books Doubleday, Toronto: 1972. p. 77, 82, 95.
  2. Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen. Doubleday, Toronto: 1999. p. 203 & 204.
  3. lbid, p. 167.
  4. Denise Chong, The Girl In The Picture: The Kim Phuc Story. Penguin Books Canada Ltd., Toronto: 1999. P. 338 & 339.