I want to share light with you, in the form of a story.
Last Sunday, as many of you were drinking coffee and chatting after church, a circle formed out front, in the driveway. It was a circle of middle schoolers from our church and Christ Church, Waltham. I looked out the window and saw Melanie Sullivan preparing the youth for the journey ahead. They climbed into minivans and headed to St. Stephen’s Church in the South End of Boston, where they were greeted by a large group of staff and middle schoolers. Some were Episcopalians who attend worship at St. Stephens, and some are Muslims, Eritrean Orthodox Christians, and people of other faiths who attend the tremendous B-SAFE afterschool program run by St. Stephen’s.
After some pizza, the group climbed onto a school bus and went to Boston Bowl, where they spent the afternoon in the shared pursuit of trying to knock down little pins and tally a decent score, meanwhile playing human bingo – through which they shared a little bit about themselves: Their favorite songs, where their families come from, what languages they speak. Melanie, who planned this game, wisely realized that candy is a universal incentivizer, so once the youth saw that completing the game led to candy, enthusiasm increased, and a joyful shared sugar high was achieved.
If you glanced at this group in the midst of their bowling, you might think, “OK, just a bunch of tweens hanging out, awkwardly trying to make conversation, alternately engaged and unengaged. Nothing unusual here.” But here’s my testimony about it: In the middle of a week where Paris was devastated by people who could not fathom loving their neighbor; at a time when politicians in our own country suggested registering all residents who hold the Muslim faith, in a week when Chicago and Minneapolis were reeling over the deaths of young, black men, at a time when we, as a relatively well-off group of people feel unsure how to engage across differences of race, ethnicity, income, and education – I witnessed a glimmer of beloved community. It happened. I was there. It gave me enough hope for the day.
I share this story with you today, on the 1st Sunday of Advent, because Advent is about waiting and watching in hope. And we need one another’s stories in order to practice the waiting and watching. If you arrived this morning fearful, unsure about the future of the world or your own future, doubtful that the faith that is in you is strong enough for this dark season, then I hope my story is like the lighting of a candle on an Advent wreath candle for you.
This wreath here, being a circle, is a sign to us of our eternal God’s presence and Christ’s never-ending love for us. But the fact that we don’t light all the candles right away – we gradually add light week by week – speaks the truth: we do not always perceive Christ’s eternal presence and love. I love Advent wreaths and I love the symbolism of lighting the candles, at church and at home. But this year, I want you to do more than that: I want you to “light candles” for one another by sharing your stories and your prayers.
Was your heart strangely warmed by something beautiful or by an act of compassion? Tell someone.
Were you able to forgive someone – maybe even yourself? Let me celebrate that with you.
Did you witness or participate in a gathering where hope was generated and barriers crossed? Ask someone to pray in thanksgiving with you.
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8), and share them.
Sharing our stories and prayer as we watch and wait in hope is an ancient practice. Nowhere was it done more intentionally and beautifully than in the Gospel of Luke, from which we will be hearing in this new Christian year. Luke begins his gospel by making that clear. I decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed (Luke 1:3).
We don’t know who Theophilus was – probably a wealthy patron or a distinguished leader – but we do know that Luke wanted Theophilus to know the truth and to be transformed by it. His full, beautiful, orderly account emphasizes, more than any of the other gospels, Jesus reaching out to the poor and calling on those with much to share it. Luke lifts up stories honoring women, the despised race of the Samaritans, and Gentiles to show us a God who loves and saves everyone, especially those we are tempted to exclude or fear.
We don’t know who Theophilus was, but we do that he lived in a time when clinging to hope in Christ was hard. The dark portents Jesus sets out in today’s gospel may refer to the end of history, but they may also refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD or to the general experience of people at most times and places. Distress among nations, people fainting for fear of what is coming upon the world – yes, this is our experience, as well as Theophilus’s experience.
But note what Jesus tells the disciples to do in the midst of these dark portents: Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:28). Stand up and take your place. People get ready! Don’t cower. Don’t give up. Don’t stop lighting candles. Watch and wait. Stand up and stand firm. Christ is coming soon.
As you may know, tradition holds that the author of the Gospel of Luke was a physician. Eusebius (3rd c. bishop and historian) believed that Luke’s profession as a doctor added a special spiritual dimension and wisdom to his writing. Luke has left us concerning that medicine which he had received from the Apostles … a medical book whereby not our bodies but our souls may be healed (Ecclesiastical History, 3.4).
I know that I need this healing: the healing that can only come from the remarkable truth of a God who not only created us but came into this world to heal us, loves us, and will never abandon us. I need to be reminded and refreshed by Luke’s stories and by yours to stand up and take my place in the company of the faithful. Let this Advent be a time when we proclaim, not only in symbols, but with our lips, that Christ is coming soon.