Sermon, November 27th 2011: “It’s time to wake up!”

"It’s time to wake up"  Rev. Stacy Swain

Isaiah 64: 1-5

Mark 13:24-37

           It had gotten later than we usually liked it to be when we traveled that so called road back from the city of Chalatenango to our little village.  It was inky dark out, no moon, and, of course, no street lights.  We were going slowly, rolling like a boat on rough seas, through the pot holes, ditches and ridges in the road.  It had been a long day at a training we had had with other health promoters in the region.  I was tired.  Mark was driving.  As the truck rolled along, my eyes got heavier and heavier. 

           And then, we rounded a bend and came upon something that jolted me awake, — that made Mark hit the brakes.  Right before us, the heavens were opening and the stars were falling from the sky. 

           It took a moment for our eyes to adjust and our astonishment to abate just enough to make out that what we were seeing was a several acre field absolutely chocked full of fireflies.  There must have been thousands and thousands of them.   The entire field was lit up as if someone had laid miles of Christmas lights in the grasses.

            But because the moonless night was so inky black and so full of stars, it was impossible to tell where the sky ended and where the field began.  It was as heaven and earth had merged in one vast expanse of dancing lights.  We sat there for I don’t know how long awed by heaven and earth’s embrace.  


          Jesus tells us in Gospel of Mark from today to “Beware, keep alert.”  These are some of Jesus’ final words to the disciples before heaven and earth come together in the events of Holy week.  It’s striking to me that the teaching of “Keeping awake” is what Jesus chooses to  underscore for the disciples at the end of his time with them.

          Perhaps that is because Jesus knows it is what the disciples need to hear.  Perhaps it is because he knows their propensity to be plagued by drowsiness.

           Remember that passage in the Gospels called the Transfiguration when Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a high mountain?  Remember how the disciples almost missed the whole thing?  They were just nodding off when it happened. When  Jesus’ face changed and his clothes became dazzling white; when Moses and Elijah appeared and all were surrounded by the glory.  The disciples almost missed it; this embrace of heaven and earth.

           And then these same disciples,  did not do nearly as well in the Garden of Gethsemane it turns out, that night.  When Jesus again took Peter, James and John with him and told them to keep awake as Jesus withdrew a bit further to pray.  When he returned he found them sleeping.  He woke them then up and said  “your spirit is willing but your flesh is weak.”  And he went off two more times to pray only to return again and again to find the disciples sleeping for their eyes were very heavy? (Mark 14:32-42). 

           What is it about this tendency of the disciples to doze off?  Why is it that Jesus warns us about it so explicitly against it?

           The early church mothers and fathers, those holy people who settled in the sands of Egypt recognized this tendency in themselves and their community.  They saw this tendency to “fall asleep” as a kind of creeping lethargy that sapped the vitality and energy not only of their individual selves but of their community as well.  So clear were they about its presence that they gave it a name, the noonday demon. For it was at that hour that distraction and disinterest most often came creeping doing its best to convince the monk that the life of devotion to God was a ridiculous pursuit full of nothing but tedium.  This noonday demon is life sapping, and leads lethargy, to a kind of a paralysis of the soul. (from Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me)

           This noon day demon does its best to convince us that living a life of faith really takes too much work and it really is not worth the effort.  Things are really not going to change.  Prayer does nothing.  The problems of the world are far too vast for us to do much about them and after all what it is point?  You were up to late last night, you should have skipped church.  You are too tired, no need to get up for prayer group.  What’s the point, of making such an effort?    

           And this tendency to doze off, this pull towards lethargy has affected our life as a nation as well.  Pastoral Theologian and Professor Sharon Thornton believes that we are suffering from pervasive issues of dislocation from our true selves and from our common life.  As the ties that bind us together as families, communities and as a nation begin to unravel we struggle to find meaning and purpose in our days.  In our dislocation and increasing isolation we turn in upon ourselves filling up the ache on our hearts with the latest quick fix, shopping, working, eating or drinking too much. 

           But then just as we feel our eyes closing, Jesus grabs us by the shoulders on Advent and says Wake up!  Beware, Stay alert! 

           Now being one, as Mark will attest, that chafes at being told what to do, I for want for one want to know why it matters if I am awake for not.  Is it really that important for me to be paying attention?  And if so, Why?

           God came to us in the person of Jesus to not just to show us the way of right living, but I believe that in some in the person of Jesus all flesh, all creation was re-infused, reconnected with that life force of the universe that was laid down on the dawn of creation.  We when we awake from our stupor we awake to the reality that ourselves and everything around us is filled with the light and love of God and through our hands and feet we participate in this light and love is brought into the world.  To succumb to the whisper of the noonday demon is turn over, give up our connection with the light and love of God.  It is to relinquish that creative, life giving power that has been extended to us through Jesus.  That’s why the stakes are so high.   

          You see waking is up not just something we do for ourselves. It is not just something that makes our own lives much more meaningful and fulfilling to live.  But waking up and staying awake is really something we do for each other and for the world.  When we wake up to the deep and powerful way that we are connected to God and through God to all things, then we can become instruments of God’s grace in the world.  Through who we are, what we do and how we love, we join in blurring that line between heaven and earth.  Through who we are and how we love we can send some of those stars tumbling down from heaven.

           It was imperative to Jesus that the disciples be awake because Jesus’ earthly presence was about to end. He needed the disciples to fully understand that it was this presence they were soon to inherit.  He would be with them.  He would give them through the Holy Spirit the power and presence that they would need to continue the regeneration of life on earth as God would have it.  But they soon would be his hands and feet, his eyes and mouth in the world.  This is why they needed to wake up.  This is why we need to wake up!

           So how do we do it? How do we wake up?  How do we stay alert?  How do we set our advent alarm clock?

           Turns out that once very effective way waking up and staying awake is through the power of structure and routine.  The noonday demon turns out hates a disciplined life.  That is why religious communities through out the ages have organized their lives in very intentional ways.  Each day there is time set aside to pray, and to work,  at time to meditate on God and a time to serve those around them.  It turns out this kind of integrated living creates a kind of mindfulness where one is more able to see where God is moving in the world and more will to participate in that movement. 

           What if we try it for these next four weeks?  I know it seems like a lot, but what if every day for the next four weeks we were to aside 30 minutes for God in whatever form that works best for you, but that we stick with it.  Praying in the morning, walking at noontime, journaling before bed of a review of your day looking for what you are grateful for and what you wish had gone differently.  Whatever it is what if you were to practice that every day for the next four weeks?  And then in the balance of our days, what if we committed ourselves to looking for God.  What if we held in our minds the question “Where is God in this?”  What if we walked through our days really connected to this power of life and goodness that is coursing through the world?  How would that change what we do? Who we are?  How would that chance our experience of being alive? 

           All around us there are examples of people waking up to the needs of our time. From Occupy Boston that, regardless of its politics or future agenda, has made us aware of the life sapping income disparity in our nation.  To City mission society in its partnership with the Boston Public Schools that is waking us up to the life sapping disparity in our public education system where disadvantaged children, are shunted to disadvantaged schools.  There is much to wake up to. There is much to be done. .

            Wake up!  Jesus says.  Stay alert.  Not just for yourself but for the world.   For things are happening.  Around the next bend the stars are falling from the heavens, and earth caught up in heaven’s embrace.  Around the next bend is a babe in a lying in a manger. Around the next bend, light is shining in the darkness, shining forth a love and peace and hope.   It is time to wake up.  AMEN