Scott Gunn: Shining the Light of Grace

A few days ago we celebrated Thanksgiving. At our home, we’re still eating our way through leftovers, and maybe that’s true for your home, too. It’s not only about the food though, as delicious as cranberry relish can be. More than eating leftovers and remembering time with family, I love this time of year just after Thanksgiving because for a few days it seems that we allow our hearts to be filled with gratitude.

It's not just Thanksgiving Day that reminds us to be grateful. Malls and websites will not let us forget that Christmas is coming. We talk about the Christmas spirit, those little acts of kindness and generosity that seem to flourish this time of year. Even through the veil of commerce we can see fullest joy on the horizon, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Grace upon grace.

The church, in its own way, bids us to prepare to greet Jesus with the season of Advent that begins today. Advent points us to Christmas and it calls us also to ready our hearts to meet Jesus Christ when he comes again in glory.

On this first Sunday of Advent, our readings offer solemn warning that we must get our lives in order, so that we may be found “blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” But where do we begin? How can we achieve the seemingly impossible state of being blameless?

St. Paul was a man steeped in gratitude. He was poignantly aware of the grace and mercy of God in his own life, and his letters again and again speak of gratitude and grace. Without God’s having loved him first, St. Paul would not have become the pastor and missionary who changed the world. Keenly aware of God’s grace, St. Paul was easily moved toward gratitude. “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”

Here St. Paul is grateful for those Christians he loved, and out of that gratitude, he hoped their lives would abound in the same love that he had found in his own heart through the grace of God. If the Thessalonians were going to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all, the journey would begin in gratitude as they sensed God’s grace at work in St. Paul and in their own lives. And out of gratitude for God’s love, they would want to share that love with the church and with the world.

In a world that concerns itself primarily with making sure everyone gets what they deserve - no more and no less - how can we fill our hearts with grace? Jesus spoke about how to change our hearts. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In other words, if we want to change our hearts, we spend our money so that our heart will follow. Instead of waiting to feel like changing, we lead our hearts by our actions.

It's like that with gratitude, too. When I was a child, my mom always made me write thank-you notes to the relatives who sent me Christmas gifts. As an adult, I still make a regular practice of writing thank-you notes. Sometimes, when my gratitude wanes, the mere act of saying “thank you” helps me be more grateful. Practicing gratitude leads our hearts. And then our hearts lead us to more gratitude.

In his gratitude for and love of the Thessalonians, St. Paul hoped that they would “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” May we all desire to abound in love for one another and for all.

Perhaps you and I could see Advent as a time to abound in love for one another and for all. As we prepare to worship Jesus at Christmas and to greet him when he comes in glory, we will surely want to turn, to repent, to become blameless.

If our hearts are filled with anger, with hatred, and with fear, there isn’t much room for love. And it works the other way around, too. If we fill our hearts with gratitude, with hope, with mercy, with love, there is less room there for fear and hatred.

Let’s be clear. Love is a practice. Love is an action. Love is not merely a feeling.

The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about this when we taught about what it means to love our enemies. In a sermon delivered in 1957, he said,

It’s significant that [Jesus] does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all [people], so that you love everybody, because God loves them. [From a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on November 17, 1957. Retrieved from sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church]

There it is again - the connection between grace and love. God loves us, and so we love others. We love everybody, because God loves them. And we love others with practices, with actions, not merely with feelings.

St. Paul does not call us to abound in sentimental feelings, but to abound in love. Jesus did not call us to sentimental feelings, but to love. This Advent season is not just a time to have our sentimental feelings, but a time to love.

If we want to be blameless before Jesus when we meet him, we do well to follow St. Paul’s desire for the Thessalonians. We must abound in love. But how? How do we abound in love? How do we move beyond mere feelings into actions? How do we cultivate a life that practices love?

It comes back to repentance, to turning. We have to turn away from anything that isn’t about love, and turn toward those things that are about love.

Of all the prayers in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, one of my favorites is the one assigned to today, to the First Sunday of Advent. It begins, “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the amor of light….”

Before we can cast something away, we first have to see it and name it. The armor of light - God’s power and glory - is our help and strength. We can look at ourselves and our world and shine the light of grace to reveal what needs to be cast away.

If we’re going to fill our hearts with love, we need to cast away the hatred and fear that so often fill our hearts. If we’re going to love others, we need to cast away selfishness and anger and indifference. If we’re going to work for a world in which love can thrive, we need to cast away oppression, violence, and degradation.

In a world that so often seems to be spinning out of control, it would be easy to be overwhelmed by the evil we see. No one of us can solve the great problems of the world, but we can change the world one life at a time, beginning in our own hearts.

Once a year or so, because of a treatable medical condition, I visit a cardiologist. My visit always includes an echocardiogram, a look inside my heart to see how it’s functioning. The season of Advent is a good time for a checkup. We can look inside ourselves to see how our hearts are functioning.

Are our hearts filled with fear, with hatred, with anger? Or are our hearts filled with gratitude, with mercy, and love? I think it’s safe to say we’ll all find a little of each. I love this season of Advent because we have an invitation to cast away those things that distract us from love. We have the opportunity to turn toward Jesus. We have the mercy and grace of God, which by the power of the Spirit can strengthen us to abound in love.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.