As you have no doubt gathered by now, this morning we mark the first Sunday of Advent. In our church calendar this is the beginning of the new liturgical year, and in our secular calendar and popular culture it is a kind of crossover from the Thanksgiving holiday to the Christmas holidays.
And all of this just in time for Jesus to get his Christmas cards out early with the heart-warming Gospel message we just heard, that the world is coming to an end; that disaster waits around every corner; and that you better be ready. Happy Holidays from our house to yours, signed: Jesus, Mary and Joseph!
Not to be outdone, our ever pervasive media, from which we are seemingly unable to find refuge, has decided that the end times are indeed upon us, and that the apocalypse begins here in the United States, rather than in the traditionally anticipated place of the Middle East.
And perhaps they are correct. Maybe it is that bad. The signs of our times are not looking good and I believe we really, truly, need to pay attention to them. To sweep under the table the questions, concerns, and even panicked response to the election of our sisters and brothers who are handicapped, or immigrant, or Muslim, or poor, or LGBT, or African-American, is morally indefensible. Just as it was to sweep those same concerns that many white working class people had. Concerns that no one was listening to them regarding their increasing poverty, their inability to find work, the growing very serious drug problem in rural areas and more.
So, yes. I’m here to tell you they are all right – the world is falling apart. Insane terror organizations like ISIS control large parts of the Middle East murdering untold numbers; climate change is real and yet most of our leaders fiddle as millions of acres of forest burn, our coastal areas flood and havoc is wreaked on our agriculture; Neo-Nazis and Klansmen openly celebrate, “their” election victory; many of the women and men who built our major industries throughout the Midwest and Appalachia are in desperate need; race relations haven’t been this bad since before the civil rights era; young men of color continue to be harassed, imprisoned, and even killed at alarming rates by the police; police officers are being randomly assassinated; and so much more.
So, yes, we should pay attention. That is what Jesus was instructing us to do when he told us to awaken. But as Christian, we are also not to despair. We are never to despair. Advent is an important liturgical season in any year, but this year, I think it is essential for our lives as Christians because Advent is nothing if not about light, peace, joy, and hope.
And that is why, when Dean Loya, Mother Sarah, and I were planning the Advent program for our community, we chose the theme of Breathing into Christmas as a way to focus our faith journeys at this time. We will seek to teach, in various formats, the theological and spiritual aspects of light, peace, joy, and hope and how they help us to breathe into Christmas. The idea of breathing into Christmas is a way to bring those theological aspects of light, peace, joy, and hope into the everyday reality of our lives. To change what can seem like abstract ideas into something as close to us and as necessary to our existence as our breath.
This week, we’re focusing on light. This morning we heard the great prophet Isaiah, the prophet of Advent, invite the House of Jacob, to “walk in the light of the Lord”. And that reminded me of another prophet I greatly admire – not nearly as well known – but very important to my life and to the lives of many others. Father James Otis Sargent Huntington was the founder, back in 1884, of the Order of the Holy Cross, the order to which I belong, and the first male monastic order in the Episcopal Church. He fought against many church, societal, and governmental forces to bring the light of Christ to another period in which both our church and our country was being roiled by great unrest.
In his time, the Industrial Revolution was creating a great deal of wealth for a very few on the backs of the mostly immigrant working poor who labored in near slave-like conditions. He first chose to work with very poor German immigrants, none of whom were Episcopalian.
God always works in mysterious ways and that is no less true with Father Huntington. So, here was the young James Huntington, a patrician son of a well-heeled New England family, whose father was a bishop of the church, called to serve in the slums of the Lower East Side of New York. And the way he would serve and welcome others to serve with him was to dedicate his life and community to prayer and service to society’s outcasts.
All that prayer – what I call breathing – led Father Huntington to develop his most famous teaching which is a simple sentence: “Love must act, as light must shine, and fire must burn.” “Love must act, as light must shine, and fire must burn.”
Inherent to the fact that light must shine – it cannot not shine. It is not light if it is not shining. And inherent to the fact that fire must burn – it cannot not burn. It is not fire if it is not burning. So too, is the fact that Christian love must act. To love as a Christian one cannot not act. It is not Christian love if it is not acting. One must, in fact, act. And that very act of love is learning to live into the light.
Living into the light, breathing into the light, is an act of Christian love. It is an act so radical that it is, in fact, quite counter-cultural to engage in such acts of love. You see, all around us, the forces of the market-place, our current political system, and our governmental, military and industrial complex all conspire to have us believe that if we gorge ourselves on buying products we don’t need; and if we vote out of fear even when that vote is not in our personal or national self-interest; and if we allow our treasure to be squandered on needless armaments and wars; We will be happy. We will be satisfied. We will be safe.
You see the powers of darkness are best at deception. They want us to be so afraid that we will attempt to assuage that fear with the supposed balm of a hyper commercialized and militarized society. A society that is susceptible to the Big Lie. And these same powers tell us over and over and over again: you don’t need to act: politics doesn’t belong in the church; you don’t need to act: those immigrants are taking our jobs; you don’t need to act: those people who are protesting are just whiney crybabies; you don’t need to act: your life is hard enough.
Darkness. Darkness. Darkness. But Advent is about Light. Light. Light. Light. In fact, we have this great symbol in the Advent wreath that we use each year. As the literal darkness descends and we have less light each day from now until nearly Christmas, we keep lighting first one, then two, then three, then four lights on that wreath in defiance of the darkness. To be a Christian is to out-light the darkness, even if by only one candle, because light must shine.
And so we too must act. We stand up at Advent and we light those candles and we keep lighting those candles, and we put lights up on our houses and on our trees, as we proclaim to the world that we will not let the darkness overcome us. We will act for love, for mercy, for justice, and for peace. Nothing will stop us because if God can love us so much that God would come among us, become one of us, teach us God’s way of living, and then die for us; the very least we can do is to attempt to become a little bit like God and behave in a way that is about the light.
As light must shine and fire must burn, so too we must act as God’s hands and feet and heart and mind and voice in our time and in our community, just as the great prophets Isaiah and Father Huntington did in their times. This is our time, my sisters and brothers, to stand up, light those candles, pray into that light of Christ, and act for justice, act for peace, act for the immigrant, the despised, the poor, and the forgotten. Let that light shine in you so that it becomes the fire that must burn in our communities. AMEN.