Anabaptist Light/Anabaptist Slant: World Anabaptist Fellowship Sunday

January 22, 2023
Matthew 4: 12-23; Isaiah 9:1-4

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson reminds us. That’s how a good story is told, gradually, with perspective, and context and details that may not be quite factual – but are definitely true. This can be hard for those of us who tend to view things through a scientific lens rather than through expansive metaphor. Telling it slant can help us hear, help us receive, help us understand the truth.

Matthew tells his story slant, each of the gospel writers do. Listen to Matthew’s slant as he connects Jesus with the prophet Isaiah.

from Matthew 4 – Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,

from Isaiah 9 – But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

(Matt) – so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles

(Isaiah) – The people walking in darkness are seeing a brilliant light – Upon those who dwell in a land of deep shadows light is shining.

(Matt) –  the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”

Zebulun and Naphtali, walking and living. Darkness and light. Shadows and dawn. (At a slant.)

Today we remember that as Anabaptists we also tell our story slant. On this Sunday, Anabaptists all over the world remember the beginnings of Anabaptism, almost 500 years ago. In January 1525, in Zuerich, Switzerland, Georg Blaurock knelt in his home and asked fellow believer, Conrad Grebel, to baptize him. Is that the beginning of Anabaptism?

With the advent of the printing press people could read the biblical text for themselves, and Anabaptism was breaking out in Switzerland and Germany and The Netherlands. So does the baptism of Georg mark the beginning? Or could we start with former monk, Michael Sattler and his wife, former nun Margaretha, in Germany who also saw the Light in a new slant in 1525? There is some irony that these emerging Anabaptists worshipped in secret and yet somehow were multiplying and spreading, the Light leading as it seeped out from under locked doors.

Sometimes we tell the story as if all was darkness and suddenly the Anabaptists saw the light, brought the light. Maybe – though that is probably a pretty big slant. And for all the new understandings that Anabaptists opened up, there were also very thick shadows and misunderstandings – and violence that came at them in response. Light and dark live together, dusk and dawn. It can be mysterious – and we do not always know or understand what we are seeing.

Isaiah imagined a time when the gloom that was so overwhelming for Israel would break open into light, a time when the people would walk into the light. And Matthew, living under a different but similarly oppressive regime hundreds of years later, took Isaiah’s vision and made it specific. It is Jesus that brings the light, in which the people walk, the light toward which they walk. Matthew dares take it a step further when Jesus says in his sermon on the mount “You are the light of the world. Don’t put that light under a bushel, don’t hide that light and your good deeds. Let people see so they too may praise God.” (Matt 5: 14-16)

The early Anabaptists saw the light, we dare to say, were the light. Sometimes they hid, sometimes they shone brightly.  Their new theological understandings landed many of them in deep danger. The choices they made to take Jesus’ teachings literally were controversial, politically inadvisable and illegal, even deadly. Today we count on some of that early literalism to have shaken out so that while faith remains a risky proposition, it does not always mean death. It can also lead to joy.

As people of Christ’s light with an Anabaptist slant, we notice that this wealthy, fracturing, and stratified country in which we live, needs Light. When the thick shadows get too heavy and we can’t find our way through, when it becomes oppressive and deadly, we look for the Light. Where do we see Christ’s light shining?

The people who are walking in darkness are seeing a brilliant light. 

As faithful as we understand ourselves to be, what if it is Anabaptists from Tanzania, Benin, Indonesia, Ghana, Colombia, Honduras, Congo, Ethiopia, Korea, that are bringing light to the larger Anabaptist church and movement? What if it is people new to Anabaptism that are renewing and enlightening a 500 year old church? How do those of us who were born into Anabaptism humbly listen to these “new” voices? How do those of us who have been around for a while open our hearts and minds to light that shines in a new way, perhaps at an unfamiliar slant? It may even temporarily blind us – as can happen in winter – here in the northern hemisphere.

As Anabaptists in this country we have not always understood that sunlight shines differently depending where you are on the earth, that culture and language do not have to be homogeneous in order to walk in the Light. Five hundred years on, one of the characteristics of Anabaptist churches is that congregations worship in their own ways. We read the same bible, we may hold some songs and prayers in common, but how we experience worship and congregational life can be quite different, in this country and around the world. And yet, Cesar Garcia, Mennonite World Conference General Secretary, calls on us to unite. He took this slant in 2016, “As we celebrate Anabaptist World Fellowship Sunday, may we reflect on the current polarization and increasing nationalism around the world and ask God to guide us in our political decisions so that they may be coherent with our choice to follow Christ.”

Some of us are blinded by the light, some are warmed by it, some catch glimpses that guide us, some only see dappling light that is more confusing than clarifying. We hope and pray that in community we have a fuller experience of this Light, a wider understanding, so that the Light draws us in, even as we are sent out to walk in it.

The recent Seekers class was a chance to talk about Anabaptism, in this country and around the world, and to listen and learn from people new-ish to Anabaptism. People shared their own understandings – and light – along with questions. In the coming months, people from the Seekers class will be joining their lights with ours in this congregation, becoming members. They bring faith, hope, and love. They bring commitment, compassion, and courage. They will brighten the light of this congregation and remind us of the Light of Christ which draws us in and leads us on.