Rev. Stacy Swain
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Earlier this week, I attended the rededication of the African meeting house, there on Beacon Hill, just off Joy Street.
Build in 1804, this meeting house was the first place in the United States created by and built for African Americans. Within its walls, African American children were educated, people gathered to hear speakers debate the most pressing issues of the day and on Sunday people gathered for worship. At the rededication of this meeting house, speaker after speaker told how this simple but elegant structure had born witness to a people as they threw off the chains of slavery and laid claim to freedom and a full dignity of self. In fact, I learned that it was the African meeting house that first opened its doors to the organizing effort of the abolitionist movement when no other public building in Boston; when no other church would do so. And it was the African meeting house, there on Beacon hill, just off Joy street, that would go on to be an important stop of rest and rejuvenation on the underground railroad.
The underground railroad, the way that Slaves, having escaped from the plantations of the south would make their way north to freedom. These men and women traveled in the deep darkness of the night through fear and hunger, forging rivers that threatened to swallow them, crossing fields that threatened to expose them. Traveling through the night, moving from enslavement to freedom, from fear to hope, from pain to promise, from death to new life.
And in that last bit of night just before dawn, these weary travelers would look for a place to rest. Peering out through the darkness they would look for the flicker of a candle’s flame. Deep in the shadows they would look for the light shining out in the darkness. They would look for a candle alit in a particular window or there on the front stoop of a doorway. For a lit candle signals that that the house was safe. The light of the candle led these weary travelers in from the night, from the dark and the cold and the fear and the threat and the hunger and to a place where they could find rest. The light was a sign of hope, peace and even joy on this difficult way to freedom.
The days of the underground railroad may be but a stirring memory now, but people all over the world, in our back yard and we ourselves, continue to walk in deep darkness. There is much that enslaves us, much that we are afraid of, much that we hunger for. The tents of Occupy Boston have been taken down but economic disparity persists sucking more and more lives into the gap. Our stores are alit with bright lights and cheerful carols yet so many can hear only the echo of pain and loss of love ones who have died, relationships that have broken, illness or economic uncertainty that befall them.
And yet, we dare to light the candles of hope, peace and yes, even joy. We dare to gather around their flame, because we are on the walk to freedom. We are on the Way to new life. You see, Jesus came into this world, the creator heaven and earth took on flesh and walked among us so that we may know what it is not to be enslaved any more but to be free to be fully alive. To wake up to the truth that God is present to us right now. The love of God, made manifest in Jesus is the light that is shining out in our darkness. It is the light that is leading us.
But it does not stop there. It can’t. For having seen that flicker of light, having followed that light, having been delivered from the deep darkness of night and having been gathered around that light of new life, we are to take up that light and carry it ourselves into places of deep darkness, places where people continue to be imprisoned, fearful or hungry.
We listen to the scripture of Mary and John the Baptizer and marvel at their courage and faith; their clear-sightedness and their passion. But we are called to do more than marvel. We are called to be the Marys and the John the Baptizers of our time. We are to be Light bearers like Mary, birthing God’s peace into the world. We are to be like John, Baptistizers calling out in places of wilderness preparing the way for God’s light to come into the world, a light of justice, peace and hope. This is the two fold movement of advent, to prepare to receive but also to wake up to the truth that we have received the light and that we are compelled now to be that light for others.
Friday morning, several of us went over to the Waban Health and Rehabilitation Center for our monthly worship service with the residents. Only Friday was to be a bit different. I had received a call from Joanna the activities director earlier in the week letting me know that Katherine, one of the residents who worshiped with us had died. And Joanna asked me if we would be willing to make space in the worship service for the residents, staff of Waban Health and for Katherine’s son and sister to remember Katherine and to grieve her passing. As we worshiped together a remarkable thing began to happen. There in that room, in the dingy basement of that nursing home, with the din of the kitchen in the background, a light first dim and then growing ever brighter began to shine. As it shined out and as it did the residents began to emerge from the silence of grief and the fear of their own future and began to share memories and yes even their joy at having known Katherine. It shined out and grew ever brighter, as the staff with eyes streaming laid down their weariness at having to say goodbye to another one that they had grown to love. It shined out and grew ever righter as Katherine’s son and sister thanked the residents, broken in body and confused in mind though they may be, for so bravely and compassionately walking with Katherine as she tried so hard to find her way.
People of God, let us light a candle and set it burning out there on the front stoop of this church. Let us light a candle and set it burning in the window in this church so that those who are wandering in deep darkness may see in this place, in this people, a safe house, a place where they can come in from the darkness, from the fear and the hunger. Come into a place where they can be freed from that which persecutes them, a place where others will walk with them on the Way to freedom and new life.
People of God, let us live the advent stories – let us follow the example the so many people who have walked the road of freedom and let us prepare the road for those who have yet to walk it. And in all of this, may Jesus be our light. Amen