For Christmas Eve this year, I was privileged to preach at my home congregation, Trinity Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Ohio. The people of Trinity were some of my main teachers in the faith (alongside family and the staff at Camp Mowana in Mansfield, Ohio). I am both proud and blessed to have been raised in that community. They are shining Christ’s light into the darkness.
Darkness and light.
Darkness and light. We are a people of the light, yet we spend so much of our lives wandering in the darkness.
This is the human condition. Some of us experience more of one than the other, some of us are better at seeing the light in the darkness, some of us are not so good at finding the light. But still, we search. We grope. We cry out for the light. Like the generations before us, we crave light.
Sometimes, the darkness is our own doing – we become focused too much on our own needs, break relationships, indulge our desires to the point of illness that we cannot escape. We close out the light. Sometimes the darkness is something in us we cannot control, at least not without difficulty – mental illness, a physical illness, a darkness we fight with all our might but still seem to have difficulty finding the light. Other times, the darkness is imposed on us on a personal or structural level – abuse, relationships broken by the other party (or parties), loved ones who are ill, a government or society that doesn’t view us as a full person, life in a land ravaged by war, famine, a system that keeps people poor no matter how hard they try to move up. Often these conditions are the result of others who are living in their own darkness; people who don’t realize they can’t see the light.
Wherever you are, however much darkness you may be in, the light of Christ is with you.
Tonight is the night we celebrate the central miracle of the Christian faith: God came to earth to be with us, to understand us, to feel pain and joy just like us, and, most of all, to be a light that would banish our darkness and lead us home to God, to everlasting life.
The God in whom we place our hope is not a God who stands far above us, judging us, moving us around like little pieces on a chess board. Our God is a God who plunged himself into our deepest darkness, plunged himself into death, only to return in light and glory and to leave us with light to follow until he comes again.
Our God is a God who walks with us in our pain because God has been here. In Jesus’ time on earth, he lost loved ones, experienced betrayal, felt death breathing down his neck, experienced physical and emotional pain, cried out to God that he he felt forsaken. God forsaken by God. He was fully human and fully divine. He gets it. In Christ we are never alone. God is always there to walk us through. Even when we can’t feel it, even when we are so lost in our own darkness that we can’t see the lanterns on our path. God is there.
God came to us as a child, breaking into human history, breaking into time and lived among us. Christ ascended into heaven but left the Holy Spirit and remains present with us in the gospels, in creation and in community.
God is here. Christ is here. Right here, in this place. The bright light shining in the darkness, lighting our way home.
Christ lives in this community, holding you up as you hold up each other.
That’s the only possible explanation for how you, dear members of Trinity, are still here.
My dad would come home from council meetings in the 80’s stressed out about the future of Trinity. The finances were ugly, he would say. There isn’t enough money. The building is falling down around us.
Twenty-five years later you are still here.
This is because Christ‘s light lives in your midst.
For those of you who might be visiting tonight, I want you to know this is an amazing community. It is a place where Christ’s light truly shines. Trinity folk, for 35 years, from near and far, I have watched you, dear Trinity friends, walk with one another through the joys and pains of life, watched you lift each other up, share each other’s triumphs and failures. You not only do this for members of this direct community, you reach outside of these crumbling walls to feed, clothe and assist those who come to you needing help in any way you can.
Christ lives among you and within you.
And yet, my father’s worries of the 80’s are coming to pass. This building is falling apart. It hurts my heart to think about this building going away.; to think that I could come home for another Christmas and not worship in this space This building is where my faith was nurtured, where I learned women could be pastors, where I would sit to listen to my father’s wonderful bass voice float down out of the choir loft, where I first preached and where I was admonished to take prayer more seriously. This community held my family as my father fought and lost a battle with cancer, and has prayed with and for me as I took a windy, weird journey to ordained ministry. I love this place. I misted up a little on Sunday when I wandered down to the fellowship hall and admired the walls we painted (with the Robar’s wonderful direction) so many years ago. It is painful to think about this community leaving this place.
But how much of what I just said was about this building? The painting downstairs is a result of the community, no the building. My father’s voice couldn’t have floated down from the choir loft were it not for the encouragement of a caring choir director who saw a gift in my father and worked with him to uncover it. Trinity is not this building. We were as much Trinity when we worshiped in Lakewood park for the steak fry as we are when we worship in these walls. Christ is with you, Christ lives in you, your work is evidence of Christ’s continued presence on earth. Be confident in that.
The miracle that we celebrate this night is not just that God broke into our world in a material, historical, time bound way, it is that Christ continues to be with us at all times and in all places. Christ is with us in the Gospel, in this community, and, in the most solid, material way, Christ comes to us in the eucharist. When we eat the bread and drink the wine we are crossing the bounds of time and space to experience Christ’s love and light in a tangible, real way. How? I don’t know (I disagree, you’re a damn good pastor and Christian, you know how Christ appears-here’s your opportunity to name it in concrete terms). Christ’s presence in these things is a mystery to me, but it is there.
Christ is here.
Overcome with joy this night? Christ‘s light is with you. Feeling content in your life? Christ is with you.
If you are hurting this night, the light of Christ shines for you. If you are alone this night, Christ is with you. If you are ill, Christ is with you. Jobless, Christ is there. Losing hope? Christ is there. Christ is with you now and always.
If you can’t feel it, if you can’t find the light, ask someone to help you. Reach out. This is why we gather in community as Christians. If you can’t find the light, if you can’t find your faith, someone will walk with you until you can see the light on the path.
On this night, we remember God coming to earth to know us, we remember a scared young woman giving birth to a hope that had been promised for generations, a hope that lives with us still. Let that hope, that light, live in you. Nurture it with prayer, with song, with presence in a community that believes in God, in God’s presence in this messy, broken world and insists on acting in the name of God to spread love, justice and hope to all.
If you have found the light, if you can see the light, it is up to you to shine the light so that others may follow. When we keep the light to ourselves, it goes out. When we claim the light as our own or place rules and boundaries around the light, we diminish it to the point of the faint glow of embers, the fire that once was. Christ’s light is for all regardless of who we are, what we have done and what we have left undone. Christ is for everyone. No boundaries. No fences. No in or out.
When we shine with Christ’s light , when we hold the light of Christ’s love for all creation up high for all to see, we become partners in Christ’s work. God’s work, our hands, as the saying goes. We are called to be “God with some skin on.” To be the light for those who can’t find their way and to shine our light brightly on the places where the light is dim – to the places where injustice rules, where the voices of the poor, those who are considered minorities, the different, and those on the margins are silenced, to the places where I is more important than we. We are called to shine the light on the false gospels that tell people that god rewards the faithful with material possessions, that with faith comes power, might and freedom from pain and illness. We are called to take our light into the depths of poverty, despair, hunger, addiction, abuse and to shine it. We are called to speak truth to power so that all may walk in the light in this world as well as whatever comes after this life. We are called to let Christ’s light shine from every mountaintop into every dark corner of this world.
If you can’t see the light, let someone know.
If you see the light, follow it and let it fill you.
If you are filled with the light, let it overflow into the world around you.
The light is with you. Christ is with you. Forever and always.