This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service for the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2020.
The Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles
Advent 1B 2020
One of the most important reasons we observe the seasons of a liturgical year in the Episcopal Church is that they ask us to consider our faith and the living of our lives outside of ourselves. Each season brings with it new colors and a new focus. Liturgical seasons save us from molding our faith into a reflection of our own wants and desires.
The season of Advent, which begins today, challenges us to consider our faith and lifestyles within the framework of anticipating the coming of Christ. This includes reflecting on how we experience God breaking into our daily lives and, as we near Christmas Day, it will include reflecting on how the coming of Christ once took shape in a baby in Bethlehem. Advent is all about anticipating that which is not yet fulfilled— anticipating the final coming of the Messiah in glory to fulfill the ancient destiny of the world and all who live in it.
As we examine our faith within the framework of Advent, we ask what it takes to live faithfully in the world between now and then. This is an especially important question at this time of year, because if ever we are to be aware of the conflict between the aspirations of the consumerist society around us and the gospel call for simplicity and service to the poor, this is it.
Typically, clergy call their congregations to do this work through imagery of light and darkness. Advent is when preachers remind congregations that the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not overcome it. This phrase elicits hope. It reminds us that no matter how bleak things may get, God will always offer a spark of light to guide us through these short days of winter and the difficult, downright depressing times in which we find ourselves right now.
We preachers like to talk light and darkness because it comes straight from scripture. This imagery is used throughout both the Old and New Testaments. However, the Hebrew and Greek words for light and dark clearly refer to the presence or absence of a source of illumination. The word for light refers to the glorious presence of the sun or fire while dark refers to the night or shadows, which are both to be avoided.
In the Hebrew account of Genesis’ first creation story, “God says, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day and the darkness night.” Again, this Hebrew word for light specifically describes a thing which illuminates. Whether describing a giant ball of light in the sky or the tiny flicker within a candle flame, it’s the same word.
The same goes for the Greek words used in the gospels. Light refers to things that illuminate. Our gospel lesson today begins with Jesus saying, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light.” A translation from the Greek could read, “the sun will be obscured, and the moon will not glimmer.” It’s all about the light that the sun and moon give off. Or don’t give off.
This imagery works in Hebrew and Greek, but it no longer works for us today. A problem arises however in our English language …because we use light and dark not only when talking about illumination, but also when describing tone and color and pigmentation.
A problem arises when we read over and over and over in scripture that light is desirable and darkness is something to be avoided. A problem arises because we use holy scripture to send the message that light skinned tones are desirable while dark skinned tones are not.
Language shapes our views of the world, both explicitly and implicitly.
What messages do clergy send when every year, we spend the season of Advent preparing for the coming of Christ with the reminder that light shines in the darkness, but the darkness will not overtake it?
What messages do we send to our friends of color when every year we use dark to mean bad and light to mean good?
This would be unacceptable anywhere – but especially here in a country with centuries’ long history of racially based slavery, a country still governed by the ideology of white supremacy.
Our friends of color come to our churches where we affirm their personhood and name them as created in the image of God…only to receive the message that their dark skin tones should be pushed away by lighter ones.
And for those of us who are white, this message surely distorts the perception that we hold of ourselves…when we regularly hear that light prevails over dark. When we hear that light is often a symbol of God. For those of us who are white, this idea may not have ever registered for us before. Which, of course, is another example of white privilege.
I hadn’t thought about it until the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney raised the issue during a clergy meeting earlier this year. She wondered aloud about the imagery of moving out of darkness. And then I read a book she recommended by the Rev. Lenny Duncan, called Dear Church. I now know that this imagery stings our friends of color when they hear it. And if something we do inflicts pain, then we must address it. We must change.
This season of Advent, we are doing just that. We are growing our awareness of racial injustice in the church and in our lives. Through the guidance of our Diocese of Fort Worth Working Group on Racial Justice and Reparations, this Advent we are asking you to enter this work of wholeness and healing. Rather than looking away from the multitude of sins in our collective past and shying away from the prevalence of injustice in our present, we are asking you to look directly at the pain our church has caused, that we have caused. This is the invitation the Rev. Robert Pace issued during the Working Group’s report at our annual Diocesan Convention on November 14th.
We won’t immediately unveil all the racist language, images, or biases within our churches and within ourselves, but we absolutely must commit to the work. We can continue growing in our awareness. We can repent. We can do better. In the words we use and in our behaviors, we can proclaim to all God’s children that they are holy, beloved by God who made each one of us in all our diversities.
This first Sunday of Advent, we are no longer asking you to cast out darkness and embrace the light. Instead, as we prayed at the beginning of this service, we are praying that God gives us grace to cast away the works of oppression, that we might put on the armor of justice.
We have much work to do.