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They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  -Isaiah 2:4

Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  – Romans 13:12b

I am very fortunate: there are several clergy groups of which I am a member, both in real life with local and regional colleagues, and on social media.  This latter tends to connect me especially to younger clergy, like myself; and perhaps the best part of that is the frequent recognition that I’m not the only strange one out there.

This week, as I was preparing for Bible study and for this sermon, one particular quote kept rattling around in my head… and I turned to Facebook, only to find that same quote apparently rattling around in a lot of colleague’s heads, as well.  It’s from the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, in which the mantra of one of Harry’s professors is “Constant Vigilance!” (Bonus points if you can name the professor.)  But it’s an appropriate quote for many biblical passages, both in the Gospels and the epistles, where we are frequently exhorted to be vigilant, to be watchful.  It’s even appropriate in the specific context of Harry Potter: he and his classmates are, of course, being warned to keep an eye out for the works of Lord Voldemort, who is essentially evil incarnate.  The Bible isn’t quite so dramatic in this instance, but we are reminded that if we had known when the thief was coming, we wouldn’t have let our house be broken into (Luke 12:39).  We are reminded to be vigilant for the Master’s coming (Luke 12: 35), with the implication of great trouble if we’re not prepared.  The message seems clear, from the Bible as from Harry Potter: keep an eye out, because you never know when something bad is going to happen.

That’s usually how we understand vigilance: it’s the preparedness and alertness on our part that keeps bad things at bay.  It’s what keeps us safe, keeps our loved ones and our families from the potential harms that are lurking, just out of sight.  It’s the constant awareness of the worst-case scenario.  And so vigilance often renders us suspicious; mistrustful of anything new, or strange, or different.

Constant vigilance! we are told, as though the Master were coming.  Constant vigilance! as though thieves might break in any moment.  Constant vigilance! And we respond as though Jesus’ examples weren’t just that – as though they were real scenarios, rather than metaphors.  As though there really were thieves, as though there really was some great evil against which we needed to guard ourselves and our loved ones, as though Lord Voldemort might – at this very moment – be aiming his wand at us.

As though it weren’t the Kingdom of God for which we were being told to watch.

There was a fascinating story on NPR this past week – similar to, and possibly inspired by, one circulating as an internet rumor for quite a while now.  A Mormon bishop in Taylorsville, Utah, outside of Salt Lake City, paid a visit to a local makeup artist.  She found him a gray, grizzled wig; added bushy gray mutton-chops and a scar on one of his cheeks; she blacked out a couple of his teeth.  The bishop completed the transformation with some old, ratty clothes, and I rather suspect he didn’t bother with a shower that day.  In costume, he showed up in front of the church, an hour before the services began.  Many people ignored him, a very few gave him money.  Several church members specifically asked him to leave, told him that the front of the church wasn’t an appropriate place for him to be.  He was quite convincing in his role of homeless man, even as he slipped into the church about 10 minutes into the service; even as he quietly made his way up to the front… and into the pulpit, where he removed his disguise.

The reactions were more intense than he’d imagined, and he took care to let his congregation know that he hadn’t intended to shame them, or guilt-trip them, but to make them aware that human perception can be faulty.  That most of the time, we see only what we are expecting to see.  That we need to be vigilant in a whole new way.

Vigilance need not imply suspicion.  It simply remarks upon our perspective, our vision… and our blinders.  If we are vigilant for evil, then we will be aware of evil.  We will see what we are expecting to see, what we’re looking for, whether or not it’s actually what is in front of us.  When we are suspicious, when we are expecting thieves, then we see a smelly panhandler, rather than a child of God.  When we are suspicious, we see a threat, rather than a nineteen year old whose car has broken down, or an Alzheimer’s patient, or a human being in need of help – and we react accordingly: both of these people were shot to death this month.  When we are suspicious, we see a trap, rather than a merchant beaten and left for dead on the Jericho road, passed even by the priest and the Levite, whose vigilance on that road didn’t show them the way to compassion.

When we are suspicious, we see more need for swords than for plowshares, more need of spears than of pruning hooks.  We feel more need to protect our loved ones from the possibility of hurt or evil than we do to ensure an adequate harvest to feed those very same people.

The cycle of vigilance, of suspicion, just continues… and yet we are surprised that, despite our vigilance, the Kingdom of God does not seem to be drawing any nearer.

We are surprised, but it has never been thieves for whom we’re supposed to keep watch.  Despite the similarities with Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort is not right around the corner, and we’re not called to be vigilant against evil.  We are called to be vigilant without suspicion: vigilant for the best-case scenario, vigilant for God, and God’s presence in our every day lives.  We are called to a vigilance that allows us to see one another with compassion, ans human beings in need one of another; even if we are strangers, even if we are different.

Paul reminds us to clothe ourselves in the armor of light – which also sounds like a militaristic, suspicious turn of phrase, implying that something bad is coming.  But militarism, protectiveness, suspicion – all that divides us, all that comes from fear and mistrust – these are the powers of darkness against which Paul is speaking.  The armor of light is not protective, but clarifying, opening our eyes and allowing for the vigilance that our faith requires.  Clothe yourselves in light so that you may be on the lookout for all of the signs of God in the world: for the Christ who walks as one of us, for the Spirit’s still, small, continually-speaking voice.

We are called to be aware of the sparks of light in the Advent darkness; not just the Advent that heralds the old story of the birth of the Christ child; rather the Advent that we have all been in since that first Christmas day: the darkness that lasts throughout the year, whatever our seasonal liturgy.  We are called to be aware of the sparks of light that will lead us to the promised Kingdom of God.

For there is good, if we simply know to look for it.

There is light in our darkness.  There is hope; there is peace; there is joy; there is love: there is God, present in our lives, visible to us if we are vigilant.  If we allow ourselves to be aware.  If we allow ourselves to live in the light.

Constant vigilance!  Even in Advent, God is nearer than we realize.