A few years ago, I spent Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with my family at The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati. It was our first visit to this monument and museum which “celebrates the heroes who created the secret network through which the enslaved could escape to freedom, the Underground Railroad... [and encourages] everyone to take part in the ongoing struggles for freedom.”
As we watched the films and heard the stories from both sides of the Ohio River, I was reminded that there were many secret codes associated with the Underground Railroad, including special words, distinct door knocks, laundry on the clothesline flapping in the wind, and lights in the windows, each signaling others that you were a safe place or a “friend of a friend.”
Jesus talks about our visibility as Christians being a signal of hope to others. We are salt and light. Salt bringing flavor to the world and light bringing vision and clarity in the darkness. He said, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.”
More than twenty-five years ago, I visited Dachau concentration camp just outside of Munich. I have never experienced such an overwhelming barrage of sorrow and fear as I did that day. Arriving by car, I entered the camp through the same gate that some 200,000 prisoners did as the box car delivered them against their will. I was greeted by the same promise of freedom that they were, “Arbeit macht frei.” This iron sign notified them, that their freedom could be found in their efforts, proclaiming “Work makes you free.”
We know, of course, that work did not provide their freedom. If anything, the harder they worked, the closer they moved to the grave. For many in the camp, nothing provided freedom except death or, finally, if they survived the war, liberation from an outside force. They were labeled Jew, gypsy, homosexual, rebel, traitor, or other perceived threat and condemned to face daily peril or extermination. “Arbeit macht frei.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Each time we look at the cross of Jesus, we are reminded that our work does not make us free. So, why do we continue to try to prove our worthiness by working our way to freedom? Daily, we strive to wriggle ourselves free of our shame and guilt. We wear ourselves out trying to escape the fears of our past. We work and work and work, trying to earn God’s love and favor. We expend our energies trying to please others, while fortifying our hearts and minds, disguising our fear and pride. We cower in dark corners hiding from the realities of weakness and sorrow.
Friday in German is Freitag – Free Day – the day of the week that marks the end of work and effort. It is that beginning of freedom. It is a period of relief and a cause for celebration. Each Spring, we gather on a Freitag, a Friday that we dare to call “Good,” and mark the beginning of our freedom in Christ. In the prisons of our own hearts and minds, God meets each of us and offers a word of relief. He says, “It is finished. Complete. I have accomplished the work.” The cross is a light of hope for us on a hill.
Jesus continues to come to us with liberation. Jesus comes with forgiveness and renewal. Into the dark places of our lives, the Light of God shines. The one crucified on a tree steps forward and meets us wherever we find ourselves and says, “You are free.”
Driving around Cincinnati on a dark night, you can still see many homes with lights in the windows, a signal of welcome and hope. By God’s power and promise, may our church and lives be such a place, a place of hospitality and welcome for all, and may we continue to shine light into the dark places.
Trying to shine,