Plymouth United Church of Christ

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“Light that Candle of Joy!” Sermon, Year C, Advent 3, December 16, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Zephaniah

[The week before this sermon, the United States had suffered from a random multiple shooting at a mall in Oregon, and mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, CT – this is in response those events, as well as the massive amount of “normal” daily murders that we seem not to care so much about]

Wherever life is diminished. Wherever there is death, pain, struggle. Wherever there is grief or turmoil. A voice whispers out of the silent darkness of the universe, racing with urgent need to speak with quickening power a single, simple word: Rejoice! Rejoice!

Rejoice, for you are not alone.
Rejoice, for I am in your midst.
Rejoice, because you matter to me, and you matter to the universe.

And the world is often ugly, cruel, and mean, and it is senseless, unfeeling, and at times it is even terrifying. But that is not how it is meant to be. It is a corruption of My way, says that voice.

And so rejoice, my friends, my people, for I am here and I am doing a new thing. And the pain of today has no more power over the future than the darkness has power over a candle.

Not always the easiest words to say. This is the Sunday of Joy. The third Sunday of Advent is Joy Sunday, and has been for a long, long time in the Christian tradition. Although this past week has not been particularly joyful for many. Certainly not joyful at all for too many families in Oregon and Connecticut where there is no joy. And for too many families in neighborhoods all over this country that go without any media attention. All those who are murdered that don’t make the news.

This is the Sunday of Joy. We light our candles, but we don’t light our candles because they model reality. The candles on our Advent wreath. We do not light them because they model reality. Lighting these candles is not a sentimentalist act of pretending that everything is okay. We light these candles in defiance of reality. And we light them as well to remold reality. To remind us who we are. We light them in defiance of reality to say to evil, “You are not ultimate! And we refuse to buy what you are selling: your easy answers, your black and white thinking, your message of power over others, and needing to win, to come out on top, or ahead of others.” We light these candles in defiance of what is to say, “This is what ought to be.”

And after the shooting at the school on Friday, this murder of children and teachers, I saw some make a call, including the Wisconsin Council of Churches that sent out an email as well, saying that this Sunday churches ought to leave the Candle of Joy unlit in remembrance of what had happened, and in remembrance of those who died. Leave it dark as a response to the unrelenting death.

And yet, as soul-wrenching as the murders on Friday were. And horrifying as those images were. And the innocents who were killed. The 20 children and 6 teachers. An awful day by any definition of that word, and that’s not even a good enough word for what happened. But the truth is, as awful as that day was, in the United States we average about 260 murders a week. A week. More than ten times those that were killed at the school on Friday were also killed this past week.

Where are the unlit candles for the 90%?

And where is the media’s attention for those 90%? Is it not also as tragic? Have we so devalued life that we don’t care about the pestilence of violence unless it happens all in one place?

So many do not get their stories told.

And we average about 37 murders a day here in the US. And out of those, about 2/3 – maybe 25, 26 – are killed by firearms, and 1/3 by other means. Every day. Which means that these shootings in Connecticut: that’s an average day. That is an average day in America.

Think about that.

And I don’t know the answer, but it is certainly time to start looking for one. To start talking. To figure something out.

I don’t know the answer. I know what the answer isn’t. And there are some that came out: Mike Huckabee and Fred Phelps and others, who have said that these children were killed as God’s punishment for taking God out of the schools, or not having enough “God” in our social discourse, or whatever. I know that is not the answer. That is an awful answer. That is an evil god that would send someone in to slaughter innocent to do... what? Teach the parents a lesson? That’s not God. That’s absolutely not God’s way. And the story of Advent is precisely to say, “That is not my way! Stop it! You don’t need to do it!”

And I don’t know what the answer is, because the answer is incredibly complex. The problem is incredibly complex. It involves our fascination and celebration of violence, and guns, and weapons of war, our egos, our inability to communicate with one another, economics, financial anxiety are all tied into this, hopelessness, health care issues especially around mental illness, what we do as a society to help our neighbors, a for-profit media that often sensationalizes these things and has a 24/7 news feed that is supported by advertising. It is a very complex and big issue. And part of that seems to be our inability to have an honest discussion, and a nuanced discussion, and a delicate and heartfelt discussion about extremely difficult topics. We like simple answers and simple solutions and this is not easy.

I don’t know the answer, but probably the answer is going to be very costly if we are willing to seek it. Costly in terms of us giving up some cherished ideas, and cherished thoughts.

I don’t know the answer but I do know that Jesus shows very much a way to respond. Jesus gives us the tools that we need to respond. Which is to not give in to despair.

To not keep these candles unlit.

But to light them.

To light them, precisely because of what happened. The two mass killings this week, the one in Oregon and the one in Connecticut, and I think those make it even more imperative that we light the Candle of Joy. Maybe that we should have lit 10 of them, or 20 of them, or 50 of them. Light as many as we can find. Flood the world with light until it can be seen from outer space. Light that Candle of Joy this Sunday because the Christian message is joy in the face of darkness. The message is not that we need to retreat into the darkness. Or that we need to hide in the darkness, but that we can go forward. The message is that we do not have to wait until we know joy to light the candle.

If that were the case we would never light any of the Advent candles, because there is always some level of not having joy, or not having hope, or not having peace, or not having love in this world. If it were the case that we ought not light any of them until the world has established hope, peace, joy, and love, then we would leave them dark every year as proof that we really don’t believe what we say here.

But we light them because we do believe.

When times come when words of worship are more difficult to say, such as this week, or any other time there is great suffering or loss of joy, whether it be in the community or in your own life. When times come when words of worship are more difficult to say then we need to say them more loudly. We need to say them with more passion, with more force than usual.

Not remove them and sit in darkness in mute submission to evil.

Jesus has given us not the answer, but the way to respond:
Do not give in to fear, but have hope./
Do not give in to anxious fretting, but be at peace.
Do not give in to despair, but rejoice, have joy.
Do not give in to apathy, but have love.

For evil has no power except what we give it.

Advent says that there is a way out of this mad cycle.

The Church stands where there is darkness and points to the light. And we are the light. Anne Lamott, a writer and Christian thinker wrote yesterday, “We are lighthouses of sacred love”.

Don’t keep that light hidden. Let it shine.

Light those candles.

Go on living. Go grocery shopping, Cook another meal. Celebrate with your family. Come together with friends. Hold your children a little tighter. Plant a flower. help a neighbor. Give it a bit more to St. Francis. Say “I love you” more often. And wherever there is darkness, wherever there is darkness, remember that it is destroyed by the light of a single candle.


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Plymouth United Church of Christ
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Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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