Lighting and Lifting Our Candle
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
February 9, 2020
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 58; I Corinthians 2:12-16;
Matthew 5:13-16; Thomas 24, 70 & 77
We have heard several teachings that can help us light and lift a candle in the darkness today and let it shine, but let’s begin by remembering why this is so important.
We often read a story during Advent by Isaac Bashevis Singer called “The Power of Light.” It takes place in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto that the Nazis have just bombed and burned. Three hundred thousand Jews have been gunned down or shipped off to death camps. Only a few remain in hiding.
Rebecca and David are thirteen and fourteen years old, both their families have been killed and they have been living for weeks in a lightless, collapsed basement as winter has deepened. Every few days David has snuck out to search in the ruins for food to keep them alive. Each time he goes Rebecca knows he could be captured or killed. They both know they will starve or freeze to death if they stay in this dark hole, but they also know that the Nazis watch the Ghetto walls day and night, and to try to escape would be extremely dangerous.
One day Rebecca’s heart stops as it always does when she hears someone drop down into the basement, but it is David, and he has found not only a few scraps of food but also a candle stub and some matches. They realize that it is the first night of Hanukkah. They say the prayer and light the candle and see one another’s faces for the first time in weeks. They are dirty and much thinner, but their eyes shine with love, and with something else as well.
Years later they would say that it was the power of that one tiny candle flame shining in the darkness that filled them with the hope they needed to make their courageous journey to a new world. They left that very night.
And here we are today. The situation in our nation and world right now can feel very much like theirs, as if we are trapped alone in a dark room of danger and fear, as if massive forces are at work around us that are destroying what we have loved, our democracy, our natural world, our hopes for our children, and we see no way out.
We do not see how we can overcome those massive forces, and yet we know that truly we are not alone, that the majority of people long as we do to live in the light of unconditional love and a world of justice and peace. We know as David and Rebecca did that there is a resistance movement of loving people who are struggling to create that new world of God’s realm on earth.
The saints, prophets and mystics of all traditions and all times have served as a resistance against an unloving, unjust world. Like the saints before us, we need to find and work with the higher power of light that creates life, sustains life and leads life to evolve.
Like David and Rebecca, we need hope to make our courageous journey and be part of that movement for a new world, and hope depends on us finding our candle and lighting and lifting it. To paraphrase the Taoist saying about peace, there is no light in the world without light in the nation, no light in the nation without light in the town, no light in the town without light in the home, no light in the home without light in the heart. Whether our sphere of action is the town, nation or whole world, our work begins at home, in the heart.
So what useful wisdom can we glean from these scriptures written thousands of years ago?
First, the light is definitely, unquestionably and always in you. Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” And he says, “I am the light that is within and around all things… Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up a stone, and you will find me there.” The light is in everyone and everything because it is a metaphor for the essence of all creation. The light is the spirit of God that is in all God creates from the Big Bang to us here right now.
This is why the 2nd Century bishop Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” The problem is that many humans are not fully alive, not shining fully the light of God’s love that is within them. There can be many reasons for this.
Some people get stuck at an immature level of development where their love is restricted by a fearful selfishness or fundamentalism or tribalism or a partial pluralism, where they are unable to see the oneness of all creation and therefore unable to have universal compassion and unconditional love, the consistent qualities of the light of God shining through humans who are most fully alive.
People are capable of moving to a more fully alive developmental level if that is what is holding them back from finding and shining their light, but others fall victim to forces beyond their control that dim or douse their light, whether body chemistry or personal trauma or systemic violence or oppression.
The wisdom we need in either of these circumstances is in Thomas where the disciples ask, “Show us where you will be so we can seek you.” In order to find the light, we need to keep seeking the light. We may feel we already have it, but we need to seek it more, we need to keep growing in the light until we are most fully alive—that is our calling and that is what the world needs. We may get so lost that we no longer believe that light exists, but still we need to keep seeking it, trusting that it is within and around all things, that all came forth from it and all will return to it. Seek, and we will find.
The scriptures are clear that it is not enough to have light inside us or to enter into the light for the self-satisfying pleasure of it. We need to lift it and shine it to the world. “If you bring forth the light that is within you it will save you,” Jesus says. “If it does not shine it is darkness.” Isaiah expresses God’s anger at people who seek spiritual light but do not translate it into works of unconditional love and compassion and daring actions for justice and peace.
This is what light looks like, this is the candle we need to lift in the darkened room of our world. David and Rebecca had the light of their love for one another and their desire to survive down in that bombed out basement, but they would have died in the dark had they not sought and found a greater light and let it propel them to seek a world of freedom, justice and peace.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew the power of light but he also knew the lack of it. One late night he came home after his wife and baby were asleep. The Montgomery bus boycott seemed to be going nowhere, the segregationists were fighting back, the police were harassing him and his family was receiving hateful, credible death threats on the phone every day.
King was exhausted, discouraged and afraid for his family and community. He felt he was at the end, his light had gone completely out. He made himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table and prayed, telling God he could not go on, and he did not know what to do. He had no hope, and yet he still was praying, seeking the light that shines in the darkness, and after a while, by the pure grace of God, a flame rekindled in him. He heard God’s voice telling him to stand up for justice, to keep pushing on, to trust that the power of God’s love and light would be with him all the way. The comfort King was looking for in his despair came in the form of a calling to shine hope to others.
The Christian writer, Madeleine L’Engle, wrote a book entitled Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. She wrote, “If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about.”
She goes on, “Jean Rhys said in an interview in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.’”
This is the ultimate wisdom about the light. It does not matter how much or how little we have to shine, we need to keep lighting and lifting our candle and contributing our part, and not give in to the darkness.
If you shine through daring acts of love and justice, Isaiah promises, “God will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that never fails. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the broken, the restorer of towns and of the earth.”
The word you was not singular for Isaiah, it was plural. It is not your light alone that will restore the earth, it is a whole lake of light, it is all the universe’s light, it is God’s light. All we need to do is contribute our one candle. Keep lighting and lifting your candle. Keep feeding the light.
Let us pray in silence, seeking the light within us, seeking God’s help to let it shine through our lives and our love…