Sermon from November 27, 2016
Romans 15: 4-13
I am full of anticipation this Sunday morning. Are you?
Specifically, I am eager with anticipation to finish painting my house, so that I can get to the fun of decorating for Christmas! Last Sunday, as I watched all these beautiful and meaningful decorations go up in the Sanctuary, I was daydreaming about my boxes in the closet and the waiting is really an exercise in patience. Personally, I have a soft spot in my heart for goofy Christmas artifacts – some of which you’ll probably get to see this Christmas season. Whenever my mother tried to throw the weird ones away, I grabbed them up. I can’t wait to see how my hodgepodge collection of Christmas kitsch will fit in my new home.
One particular piece I’m looking forward to - Somewhere in my hodgepodge mix of boxes, I have 3 ancient electric candles that seem quaint compared to all the shiny and colorful decorations I have bought over the years.
As the homes in Hastings decorate for Christmas, I suspect I’ll see some of these single candles in windows around town. The candles have a special historical meaning.
According to the internets, placing a burning candle in one's window dates back to colonial times. Candles represented friendship and were seen as a sign of welcome to others. The candle was sometimes placed in the window when a member of the family was away, but could also be a sign of good news or a beacon to weary travelers. In early America, homes were often miles apart. The sight of a candle in a window from a distance was a sign of "welcome" to those wishing to visit.
Many different countries and cultures also claim this tradition of a lit candle in the window - and in some places, it was a sign of resistance. For instance, in Ireland in the early 1600’s, during the period of Catholic suppression by the English Protestants, no public church was allowed for the Irish. Priests who had formerly performed Sunday and holiday services hid in forest and fields surrounding villages, and they would visit individual homes at night to say mass. During the holidays, people would light candles in their windows and leave their doors unlocked in the hope that a nearby priest would visit and say the holiday services in their home.
In this season of Advent we talk about waiting for the arrival of God, a point of light in a dark world, and this first Sunday our candle of hope reminds me of these candles in the window. Advent derives from the latin word, ‘Adventus’, which translates as coming or arriving. The advent candle was designed to give people light if they didn’t know their way. A far off hope in the darkness.
Today’s scripture encourages us to keep our candles lit! We are urged to stay awake and be vigilant in watching for Jesus.
What does it mean for us to be vigilant in following Jesus? Of those who were left behind in scripture – a woman at the mill, a man in the field, and people in the time of Noah eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage – none of these people were doing anything wrong. There is no judgment in the scripture except to say that they were not watchful. They were taking life for granted. They were distracted by the ups and downs of life and had grown complacent in their efforts to serve God.
We are often distracted by the ups and downs of life, the requirements of work and activity, the fun of our possessions. These things begin to take on primary importance. And, like the master of the house, we do our best to avert the thief in the night.
Jesus was a sort of thief, though.
Like a thief, Jesus snuck into the world in the form of a poor infant child. He maneuvered his way through the ‘criminal underground’ – collecting friends like prostitutes and tax collectors. Proclaiming his message to peasants and exiles – the kind of people that few ever noticed or listened to….until it was impossible not to hear them.
Like a thief, Jesus discovered the valuables of the society - the hearts and minds of the people. His intention to demonstrate love, service and healing regardless of society’s ideas of who was proper and deserving of community acceptance created a new kinship that spanned across all social divides. It created a new and different kingdom.
Like a thief, Jesus stole the compliance of people. Never again would the powers of the age be able to fully squash out a rebellion – because this rebellion, this Christian rebellion, came from the heart, was guided by love, demonstrated through compassion, and lit the way for others to follow suit.
If the Roman Empire or the leaders of the Jewish community could have seen him coming, you know they would have secured their kingdom, bolted the gates, sent away all the first-born males, and appointed armed guards at the lookouts. You know they would have protected their possessions and not let their house be broken into. But like the thief, the Son of Man came at an unexpected hour.
Our God is a God of reversals. In a world that reveres strength, wealth and victory, he arrived fragile, poor and vulnerable. In a world that busies itself with excluding groups and labeling others, he ignored our categories and offered his gifts to all people. In a world that likes to cast blame and escape humiliation, he took blame and humiliation. In a world that likes to win, he lost – lost the political battle, lost popularity, and lost his life. And yet, he won us over. Because through him, we glimpsed that burning light of compassion and forgiveness, wisdom and sacrifice, which never went out. Like the Advent candle, Jesus says you are welcome, you are safe here, I will share my warmth, food, and comfort with you.
In his commitment to sharing God’s message, Jesus put it all on the line. He risked his health by healing people with contagious disease; he risked his social standing by keeping company with outcasts; he ultimately risked his life to show the meaning of compassion and redemption for all people. He lit a spark in the hearts of the people, and it just keeps burning.
Indeed, followers of Christ have kept this light burning through the centuries. While often we Christians, just like everyone, become comfortable in our lives, and distracted by our possessions, and complacent within a system, there has always been Christians lighting up the world by being vigilant for love in every age.
Where there was sickness, followers of Christ have offered healing. From the smallpox plagues in the 2nd Century, to Medieval monasteries caring for the sick, to the first US hospitals founded by faith institutions, healing has been led by people because of their faith.
When there was devastation, compassionate people have offered shelter, warmth, and food. Amidst every war and natural disaster in history, it is religious people around the world who are the first to respond to the wounded, the displaced, and the starving. From Bread for the World to Christian Aid to PADS, there is a light in the window for people in need.
Where there was fear, good people around the world have offered safety. From warring factions in ancient England to the Pilgrims on our shores, to hiding and safe passage for Jews in World War II, to political and humanitarian asylum today - the practice of people finding safety in a church stretches through the centuries. In fact, the word ‘sanctuary’ has become synonymous with a safe haven and the right to asylum.
This is the candle that burns bright in our hearts. It is the light of responsive compassion, abounding generosity, and full hospitality. Jesus changed the course of history because never before had society considered that since “God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. As God demonstrated his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another….” Not just for family or tribe, but for everyone.
As I light up my candles this year, I pray those candles will be a beacon for people in need to find their way to me. I hope they sends the message that I will offer welcome, respite and company in sickness, and warmth, food, and safe haven for their fears. And I ask that as we experience this Advent season, we consider how we want to demonstrate our compassion, generosity, and hospitality to the people we encounter. How can we, as individuals and as FCUCC, be vigilant in our love to steal away their fear, solve their isolation and soothe their desperation? This is our time to wake up, because God is promising us to be remade in his own presence and help create his Kingdom. What will we do with our chance to show Christ’s light burning brightly in the window of our hearts? …….Amen.