Here comes the light!
A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent
Holidays are times when we make memories. These can be wonderful memories of home-cooked meals, great laughter, happy reunions. They can also be tearful times. This year my Thanksgiving was a good one, complete with two dinners, one with my parents and all my siblings. But I remember a terribly tough Thanksgiving, just two weeks after my divorce, eleven years ago. That Thanksgiving I packed up my kids in Kansas, and we made our way home to Memphis, collapsing into the loving arms of my family. I was angry, hurt and sad. Though I have worked through the anger, sometimes it still hurts. I will, of course, always have some sadness about the divorce, a loss which is still present, still real – for my children, for their mother, for me and for all those who love us.
I remember one of my children's cousins asking them in innocence that Thanksgiving, "Where's your mother?" Things seemed so dark that day, thought I'd never see light again. Eventually, I did. Thanks to the love and support of my family and countless others, thanks to the work we have all done to accept the things we cannot change, I stand here today, thinking about how bright God's light can shine, around us and within us, when we are able to see it. The challenge you and I face is to wake up, to open our eyes and to look for the light that comes at what Jesus calls "an unexpected hour" (Matthew 24:44).
But do we really want to stay awake, like the owner of the house in Jesus' story today (24:43), so we can stop the thief? Isn't that dangerous? Do we really want to wake up? There's a joke about a woman who kept trying to awaken her husband in time to go to church on Sunday morning. No matter what she did, he just wouldn't get out of bed. Finally she shouted, "Tom, get up! You're the pastor of that church, and you HAVE to go there!"
Sometimes, we don't see the light of Christ – even at church! – because we just don't want to. Sometimes, we're living in far too much pain, too much darkness, and we're just not able to see any kind of light. Those may, of course, be times when we need to seek out and get some help. Of course, your All Saints' clergy stand ready to help you, or to help you find help. Then, there are the times when we are willing and able and even longing to see God's light, and yet we're afraid. We may not be ready. "You must be ready," Jesus warns his disciples, then and now. This Advent season, how can we get ready, how can we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ? Mindful of today's Gospel words from Jesus, how can we learn to wake up and stop sleeping through our lives?
Each Sunday the Collect of the Day is meant to "collect" up our prayers. Sometimes the Collect will also directly connect with one of our lessons. Such is the case today. Did you notice that there are words in the Epistle (from Paul's letter to the Romans) and words in the Collect that are nearly identical? Let us then lay aside the works of darkness, says Paul, and put on the armor of light (13:12). The Collect says, in the traditional words of Rite I, "Almighty God, give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light . . . " (The Book Of Common Prayer, p. 159).
You'll notice our Collect adds something to St. Paul's words. It asks God to "give us grace," so we can adorn ourselves with God's light. In fact, in dark and dreary times, we may need God to "put upon us," to clothe us with an outer light, light that can strengthen and protect us. There is the first light, the inner light God has given us from the beginning, light that shines within us all, light that at times only others can see. That light of Christ is truly a gift, freely given to us, over and over again – at birth, at Baptism and at so many other times in our lives. We need and depend on that inner light. But there are also times – especially these 21st century times, I think – when we need to learn how to depend on even more light, a second light God gives us, light that shields us like armor from the slings and arrows, the shrapnel and IEDs of our lives.
There is so much incoming darkness these days, so much distress, disorder and depression, that it can be easy to pull the symbolic covers over our heads and never want to get out of bed – for church, for work, for school or for anything else. And when we do get up, we sometimes walk in our sleep, without even knowing it. How might we start seeing God's light in our darkened world?
If we want to stop sleepwalking and wake up to the light of Christ, it's a two-step process. First, there's insight. We need first to recognize and believe that there IS light! Life doesn't have to be dark and dreary forever. Light permeates God's world, and light can fill our world, too. Insight, that first step, is, however, meaningless without the second step: action. When we're finally awake, we might see the light of Christ and come to see how this is our light, too, but . . . so what? What are we going to do about it? What are we going to let God do, about the light of Christ that waits and wants to come into our lives?
These are important questions, because there are very great works of darkness in our world. We can indeed put on the armor of light. But when we decide to act, when we ask God to protect us with heavenly light, another question may emerge. How might we be shooting ourselves in the spiritual foot, sabotaging ourselves by ignoring the light already within us? I don't know about you, but, for me, the darkness I allow in my life is often about negative, destructive remarks I make or suffer being made, while the light I need to choose is about the appreciative, affirming words I could speak or allow to be heard.
My experience as priest and person is that we human beings allow and even enjoy far too much negative thinking and speaking. Like sticks and stones, words, contrary to the childhood verse, do hurt us, in a different way. There are indeed some dark things that can and do happen to us, that are not of our own making, but we human beings are often not satisfied to stop there. Sometimes we go looking for ways in which someone else is to blame for the bad things that happen to us and to those other good people in God's world. And then, we find ourselves speaking that blame into shame, saying dark things about others to anyone and everyone but them. The works of darkness include the ways in which we give ourselves over to the darker side of our humanity with damaging words, while ignoring the greater angels of our nature, who long to speak.
Examples would include comments like: "The trouble with this country or that leader or this church is . . . " or "Why did he do it THAT way?" or "Did you hear the latest about her?" We might nuance this negativity, thinking what we say won't hurt someone too much, much like we used to think, in our innocence, that bullying doesn't really hurt people all that much. But language matters, and some words, no matter how carefully spoken, can pierce God's armor of light.
What if we resolved to stop saying those kinds of things? What if, during Advent, as we prepare for the birth of Christ, we allowed a new way of speaking to come to life in us? What if, before we spoke, we stopped and reflected upon different questions, questions like these: How am I part of the problems of my world? Why do I do things the way I do them? What new thing needs to come to life in me, and how do I need to wake up and pay attention to that new thing?
When we consider how we contribute to the darkness of this world, we can more readily embrace God's heavenly light. We might more fully affirm and appreciate the people and things we see around us. Our insight might lead to action, and we might begin to say, "What I DO like about that leader is . . . " or "I am trying to see the wisdom in those different ways he does things" or "Stop right there. I've decided not to listen to or share gossip about her any longer. I will not participate in spreading darkness, when there is so much need for light."
I remember that day, years ago, when, in confidence, I said some unkind things about the senior warden of a parish I served. I did not know that, at that very moment, the leader's wife was within earshot, hearing everything I said. "You know, Father," she said, when I turned the corner and bumped into her, "Sometimes, the Lord puts you in the right place at the right time for the right reason." Now, THERE was some unexpected insight begging immediate action!
When we least expect it, here comes the light! So, what are we going to do about it? Remember: it's both insight and action. The insight? Stop sleeping through life. Wake up! There IS light! And the action? Get up again, and let God's light shine. We need to let go of our dark words and our dark ways, the ways we become part of the world's problems. We need to let God cover us with the divine armor of light, teaming up with the Christ light within us. We also need to tend that inner light, through all the spiritual practices of faith that help keep us alive and awake. This Advent, we need to make memories of light.
Then, with the light of Christ burning bright within us and protecting us, we need not fear the darkness in our world, whether it is darkness of our own making or someone else's. With God's help, we will keep casting away those works of darkness. Even when we we're not awake, even when we're deep in sleep, even when we're sleepwalking, God keeps giving us the grace we need to live in the Christ light, this Advent and all the seasons of our lives.