On Sunday, May 31st, we sent Pastor Drew Harrison and his wife Hannah to Philadelphia with our love, prayers, and best wishes. FPC hosted a luncheon in his honor and a baby shower for he and his wife Hannah’s coming joy (Jane was born on Drew and Hannah’s first day in Philadelphia, and they give thanks to God for all the wonderful gifts of the congregation). Here is Drew’s sermon for the occasion. The text was 2 Corinthians 4:1-18.
Lighting the Way
One of the things that we do each week is light these two candles. The candles represent Christ’s light for us. We light the candles at the beginning of worship to remind us that whenever we gather here Christ is with us. “Whenever two or more of you are in one accord, I will be with you,” he told us. Jesus is the light of the world, and so we have these two candles here to tell us that Jesus is here.
When we put out the candles, we do something strange. We don’t just blow the candles out. We light the candlelighter, and we carry the light out to the door before we put it out. This too holds deep meaning for us. We carry the light out of the service because we carry Christ’s light with us as we go out into the world. It is a promise and a challenge. The promise is the one we receive from God in Isaiah 43, that though we pass through water and fire, “I will be with you.” Christ is with us on our journey. The challenge is not to put our light under a bushel. It is our responsibility to bring Christ’s light into the world.
Each and every week, the lighting of the candle is a testament to the fact that Christ is with us. His presence is with us when we gather here, and we bring him with us wherever we go from here.
Now in another church this process might be so easy and so simple that it goes completely unnoticed. But not in this church. For us, getting the candles lit each Sunday is a struggle. Perhaps you remember some of the times we’ve had problems getting the candles lit. Sometimes it takes two, three, or four of us to get the flame burning. Sometimes it takes us so long that Loy Nell has to play the prelude three times before we’re done. Other times we forget, and somebody runs back and lights them during the first hymn. I remember one time when one of the boys was having an awful time getting his candle lit, and someone, maybe Jeff or Randal had gone up to help. Well, they finally got it lit; only the candle got knocked over on the downswing. And whoever it was caught it right there in their hand before it could fall all the way down. Had that gone a different way, we could have really been on fire for Christ.
Now some folks might say that we need to do something to fix these problems. Pass the duty on to more responsible people, host acolyte training, or switch to those Olympic torch things that just cut on if you get anywhere close. And I see their point. Mistakes in worship can be distracting, and pull us out of a worshipful state of mind. But for me at least, lighting the candles has become one of the most meaningful parts of worship. Because if we’re really talking about bearing Christ’s light into the world, our experience at First Presbyterian Church is much more accurate than any smooth, well-choreographed ritual. Lighting the candles here is a lot more like sharing the light of Christ than we realize.
Bringing Christ’s light with us is not easy. It’s not easy to light a candle up over your head with a flame on the end of a three-foot pole. It is not easy to be a light to the people in our lives. When someone comes to us with another sob story asking for money for another cause, it isn’t easy to listen and care, and much less to make a sacrifice in your life for someone halfway across the world. And when your child comes home with a bloody lip, it isn’t easy to teach them how to turn the other cheek. And when you wake up two hours early to care for your grandfather or mother or husband who is slowly losing his battle with time, and they don’t have anything but criticism for you, it’s not easy to smile and say, “I love you.” It’s not easy to put others before ourselves and make friends of our enemies or live servant lives. But we do it anyway.
Bearing Christ’s light into the world takes all of us. Nearly every person in this church has had a hand in helping light the candles in some way or another. Whether it’s lighting them ourselves, teaching someone to light them, making sure we have lighters and candles, or simply saying it’s okay when someone else messes up, all of us have had to work together to make those lights happen. And in the same way, we do not bring Christ’s light into the world alone. The work of shining our light in the world is an act of the whole church, and when we’re doing it right we’re working together to proclaim the good news of God’s love, and grace, and mercy.
And it’s messy. No matter what kind of no-drip pure beeswax candles we buy, something always drips all over the paraments. And no matter what sort of perfect doctrine or perfect life you would like to have, bearing Christ’s light is going to get messy and maybe even a little dangerous. Whether it’s reaching out to people and having your own bedrock beliefs challenged, or simply finding that nothing ever goes according to plan, life in Christ is not black and white but rendered in chaotic but beautiful color. And you can’t do ministry without getting a little bit of it on you.
I came here to First Presbyterian Church knowing exactly what was wrong with the world. I had a head full of seminary ideas and was just waiting to unleash them and watch the revolution happen. I thought people were just selfish, hard-headed, and indifferent. I thought if I preached well enough, that ought to turn things around. But as I’ve come to speak with you, and as I’ve come to know you and love you and treasure you, I realize that nothing could be further from the truth. I have come to know a people who constantly challenge themselves to do better, who are passionate about sharing the light of Christ and the warmth of community, and who generously give of their lives until they have nothing left.
What I didn’t understand was the size of the burden that each of us is carrying around each day. Whether it’s caring for an aging relative, or worrying about a sick daughter, being a mother to someone who doesn’t have one, fighting depression, or carrying around deep, deep wells of grief, it isn’t a disappointment that we haven’t saved the world yet. It’s a miracle that the world hasn’t fallen further apart. It’s amazing that we get out of bed at all. And it is a testament to the Holy Spirit who sustains us and sanctifies us that we can get up on Sunday morning, after being beat up all week, and say, “God is good.”
When Paul writes his letters, he always begins the letter with a greeting. To the saints of such and such a place. And I’ve always understood that to mean that saints were just like us. Sort of like People magazine’s “Stars! They’re just like us!” You know, saints walk the dog, they go to the grocery store, they have bad hair days. The idea I got from it was that saints were ordinary people. But now I understand those words a different way. Because having seen what it takes to live life in this broken, messy, difficult world, I know now that it takes nothing less than the extraordinary. So to all those who are holding the church together while falling apart themselves, who keep lighting those candles even as darkness threatens to overcome them, you are saints, in the holiest, and most divine sense of the word: you are extraordinary, and your presence here is a light to us all.
That’s why I love the way we light the candles here. Because here we are, a small group of people, who don’t always have that much light in our lives to spare. But we do not lose heart. And though bearing that light is no longer easy or simple, if it ever was, each and every week we find a way to get the candles lit. Whether it’s asking someone who shouldn’t have to or teaching someone who isn’t ready yet or simply being exhausted, but doing it anyway. If you’re the type to believe in miracles, this is most definitely one. If you’re not, then it is simply the extraordinary work of ordinary people, a light in a darkened room, treasure in clay jars.
We light them so that in the darkness we might not lose our way, and we carry them with us that others might find their paths by Christ’s light. And though we are afflicted in every way, we refuse to give up, carrying this light with us so that Jesus might be visible through us, that the world of death may be refuted by a Word of life, and so that we do not lose heart.
I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.