Lanecia Rouse has a story about a Christmas eve a few years ago when she had the opportunity to host some very special guests.
Room at the Inn is a national program in which different city churches invite people who are experiencing homelessness to eat a meal and spend the night during the cold months. Lanecia was a youth pastor at one church where they participated in this effort, and it was her first year to be a host. Sure enough, her night fell on Christmas Eve. When she heard in staff meeting that her night would be that night, she knew without a doubt that there was no other way she wanted to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.
Along with her would be many friends, including her sister, her brother in law, and a dear friend of hers named Ms. Ruby. When she got the news that she would be serving on Christmas Eve, she went on her way to Ms. Ruby’s home to talk with her and her caretakers to see if it was something she wanted to do and could do without much stress. See, Ms. Ruby was born with intellectual disabilities, and was also like a member of Lanecia’s family. They had a long friendship that began over meals shared together at church, and eventually it evolved into going to the movies, porch swing conversations, dance parties and road trips to church retreats.
After receiving the go-ahead from her caretakers, Lanecia had a conversation with Ms. Ruby to ask if she was up for “hosting Jesus” for dinner and staying overnight at church following Christmas Eve services. Absolutely delighted at the thought of hosting Jesus, She said yes.
Christmas eve came. All were giddy with joy. Tables had been set for dinner, and twelve bed mattresses had been prepared, and Ms. Ruby was on the edge of her seat waiting for the guests. And then, the moment came. When she got the news, she jumped out of her chair, let out a yelp, and ran to the door with arms opened wide. As the twelve homeless men filed in, Ruby greeted each one with a hearty “Hello, Jesus!”
Lanecia paid close attention to the Christmas story unfolding in the community center that night. The goodness and love of God flowed through the room, in their guests, the hosts, and those who prepared the meal. Perhaps most apparent though, was Ms. Ruby’s ability to see Jesus in each of the guests and their ability Jesus in her. Her loving spirit brought a smile of joy to each face. She moved around the room, freely offering her presence and friendship with authenticity, acceptance, and unconditional love. It was compelling. Equally compelling were the kindness, respect, and acceptance the guests extended to Ruby.
There was one moment when she turned to a guest who had just finished singing a Christmas song with her and said “I love you, Jesus.” He looked at her, and said, “I love you too, Ms. Ruby.” When it was time for bed and Ms. Ruby noticed all the men settling down on their mattresses for the night, she quietly packed her stuff and got ready to leave, not realizing that hosting Room at the Inn meant sleeping on an airbed on the gym floor.
“Ruby ready!,” she said, coat on, purse in hand. “Oh, Ms. Ruby, we’re staying here tonight,” Lanecia said. “We’re the hosts, remember?” She was quiet for a minute, then looked at me and said, “Jesus?” Lanecia nodded, and replied “Yes, Ms. Ruby. Jesus.” She handed Lanecia her handbag, took off her coat, and said “Okay.”
The next day, after eating breakfast, they got in the church van and took the men back to the shelter. As they climbed out of the van, Ms. Ruby said to each one, “Bye, Jesus!” To which every single one of them responded, “Merry Christmas, Ruby.”
On the way back, they spotted three other men on the side of the road, homeless, and cold. Ms. Ruby pointed at them and said, “Jesus! Jesus is there. See Jesus?” They stopped the van, and saw Steve, Alan, and John, three new friends. They still had food left from breakfast, so they invited the new friends into the van and headed to church, where all shared breakfast together. Jesus was there.
As we go into this season of advent, we get to experience perhaps the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a season of preparation, anticipation, waiting, longing, and celebration. You can smell the scent of hope and new beginnings in the air. Every year, it’s a new opportunity to experience it anew.
Two weeks ago, I got to share with you the message of Advent as a time of reconciliation: how Jesus came to reconcile us to God, and how we get an opportunity to reconcile with one another. Last week, you heard the prophet’s call to expectation of the coming Messiah, not for the first time, but for the second one. This week, you get to experience a different side of Advent, and another reason Jesus comes to us this season–to set us free. To liberate us.
Liberation is a topic of much discussion in the hallowed halls of the seminary. There’s even an entire school of thought behind it, known as Liberation Theology, a theology that focuses on the liberating aspects of the Gospel, and how we can put into effect the liberation promised to us in the Kingdom in the here and now. However, I rarely hear it spoken about in the everyday lives of us here in East Texas. Perhaps that’s because we do not perceive much that we need liberation from. There is not much that keeps us in bondage. To our everyday vision, not much hinders us.
However, in Advent, we breathe deep and inhale an air of expectation, and sing together a hymn by Charles Wesley, “Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art; dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.”
Freedom from sin is of highest importance for Jesus’s advent. We journey through the weeks of Advent with awe and wonder at the unfathomable love of God, that God would choose to pour Godself into the world through Jesus, in order for us to truly know that love and be liberated to experience new life. Liberation from sin in all of its forms comes first, and from that one form of liberation, others follow. Freedom from sin means freedom from pride, rage, greed, jealousy, and all other kinds of evils that plague this world, evils that wreak havoc on the self and on others, though we may never see the direct link. That link exists nonetheless, and freedom from sin comes to us all.
A New Way of Seeing
Perhaps the biggest and most important way we can experience this liberation is in finding a new way of seeing the world.
We see this most clearly in the story of Ms. Ruby, who saw in others Jesus, something that perhaps we fail to see in others constantly. When was the last time you allowed yourself to see the light of Jesus in every person you encounter, no matter how bright or how dim it appears? Ms. Ruby could see it in people she didn’t even know, and yet we are often so blind to that light that ongoing sin abounds in this world. Too often, we are caught up in the circumstances that shaped the stories of people whom Jesus opens the door for us to love, which can blind us from the light that is in everyone. In the ministry of Jesus, we see that loving our neighbors means meeting people where they are, no matter the circumstances, to see who they are and how God is inviting us to be a reflection of unconditional and accepting love in their life. This is, in fact, the gospel. This is the good news, good news that brings hope, joy, life, and yes, freedom.
This new way of seeing has the power to remove all forms of bondage, be that guilt and shame, brokenness and fear. Seeing as God sees is a difficult proposition for anyone, but that is the opportunity given to us in this season, and it is too good to pass up in my estimation. Seeing as God sees has the power to reconcile communities that are fractured by the sins of racism, sexism, elitism, and any other “ism” that denies the sacred worth or dignity of others.
Ms. Ruby was able to name these people, these guests, as Jesus. That is a feat that I doubt most of us would be able to do. Usually, when I think of seeing Jesus in someone, it’s because they did something that merits it. It’s people like Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, or any number of public saints that you can imagine that the mind goes to when we say “I can see Jesus in them.” But in anyone? Everyone? That’s a tall order. And yet it is in advent that we celebrate the coming of a king that was born not in a kingly hall but in a stable, surrounded by filth and animals, laid in a feeding trough. If we can see Jesus there, we ought to be able to see him anywhere.
Jesus as Liberator
The scripture this morning is one of the most profound passages in the Gospel, because it explicitly portrays Jesus as a liberator.
In the course of reading a passage from Isaiah, Jesus does something remarkable. It says he reads it in front of the people, but what is left to us to figure out is that he stops short of reading the whole passage. He reads the part about bringing good news to the poor, release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation of the oppressed, and announcing the year of the Lord’s favor–but stops short of the whole passage, in fact stops in the middle of a sentence. Why? Because the rest of the sentence talks about vengeance, and vindication, visited upon foreigners and enemies. Revenge is a theme in the rest of Isaiah 61, and revenge is what the people expected Jesus to talk about that day in his midrash on this passage. But that’s not what he does. No, he does not talk about vengeance, but only liberation. Not only that, he says it has been fulfilled.
The people are excited at first, but then he goes on to explain that liberation does not exclude. Liberation is freely offered, and offered to more than just “us.” It’s offered to everyone, that can make some people mad. In fact, it made his neighbors so mad that they tried to throw him off of a cliff. And yet… and yet that is the message of liberation. Jesus offers liberation and in the process liberates us from our categories, our small mindedness, and our “isms” that plague us so.
One of the most powerful ways Jesus liberates us is to affirm the wonderful truth that we are all distinctly created and endowed with gifts to participate in God’s work in the world.
There is no barrier anymore. There is no wall. There are no chains. If you can dream it, if you see yourself doing it, with God’s help you can do it. The empowering word of God is offered to all, and yes, to you. At the table of grace we all get a seat. At the table of mercy, we all are offered forgiveness and freedom from sin.
Joining Jesus in His Mission
Daily Jesus invites us to come and see what he is up to in the world, and invites us to join his mission of mercy and liberation.
Jesus does this in such a way that perhaps we have forgotten. The word “evangelism” has become a bit of a dirty word in today’s world, because it has been tainted by those who have lost sight of what it truly means. Evangelism comes from the word “evangelion” from the Greek, and it means “good news.” To evangelize is to give good news. That’s it. It’s that simple.
When Jesus invited his followers to join him, he did just that–invite them. He didn’t coerce them, or force them, to do anything. He simply asked if they would follow him. Come and see. See what happens. See what happens when you are freed to follow. That’s evangelism. A simple invitation, and sharing of good news. Not fear, but faith.
When Jesus calls us, and we say “yes” to following, we see God working in and through our lives. Joining in Jesus’s mission of liberation, to “fish for people,” allows us to go some amazing places, and learn from people offering beautiful acts of love, locally, nationally, and all over the world.
One of the most profound experiences I got to be a part of occurred last year. As a commissioned elder, I was invited to go on a mission trip with the bishop and her cabinet to the border in McAllen Texas.
We got to go and help out in a small community that lies about as “off the grid” as you can get. We helped build a woman’s porch, repair her floor, and even build a ramp for her. Other teams built roofs, painted houses, and did all sorts of things. In the process, we got to meet with these people we were helping, who were members of the local mission, and understand that these are not simply recipients of charity, but our brothers and sisters in need. It would be no different if one of our members here had a problem with their house and a bunch of people here decided to just go and build something for them that they needed. That was what it was like.
We got to go to the border wall, see a welcome center for refugees from the drug wars south of the border. We got to see the Rio Grande, and understand that on the other side of that river was a whole other country with people desperate for help. We prayed. And we got back to work. And it was a wholly life-changing experience.
As much as we were helping those in impoverished and unstable situations, we were liberated in a different way. Liberated from a sheltered world view. Liberated from categories of charity and giver/receiver. The fact was, while we built ramps and roofs, they cooked for us and took care of us in their own way. We worshiped together. We took communion together. We became family. And in each of those people, with backgrounds that differ wildly from mine, who have faced hardships I can only imagine, in each of them I saw Jesus.
Looking for Light
Joining in Jesus’ mission to liberate means overcoming, by the grace and unconditional love of God, our own self-doubt, our fear, our need for control, and our need to fix or manipulate the outcomes. Joining in Jesus’ mission challenges us to understand ourselves in new ways, as disciples sent to engage the world to prepare the way for healing, for hope to be awakened, dignity restored, and the weight of guilt and shame released by the unconditional love of God.
Each day we are given a choice. We can choose to see the light of Jesus in others, or we can be blind to it. We can choose to hear the word of God in our lives, leading us to be the hands and feet of Jesus, or we can ignore it and perpetuate the prison of sin. We can choose to show Jesus to others, or we can choose to remain in our default state of selfishness, self-centeredness, and brokenness.
If we join in Jesus’s liberating mission, we have to be open to different points of view, different experiences, and different expressions of grace. The good news is that if we are willing, we can see light in places we never imagined it to be.
What a great privilege it is to be loved by and in service with a Creator who chose to be with us, who refused to remain distant, who came in Christ so that we might truly be free. Amen.