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November 27, 2022
I spent Thanksgiving up at a camp in Highland Parks, NY. It’s a beautiful spot with acres of woods all around, so it’s a lovely place to go hiking when the weather is good. But right now it’s hunting season, so before you go wandering through the woods, you have to put on a bright orange vest so that no one with a hunting rifle mistakes you for a deer. That part unsettles me. It’s hard to wander peacefully among the trees when you feel like danger lies hidden all around.
We’ve all gotten used to being on high alert, though, haven’t we? The world feels more and more dangerous, from the daily accounts of war and gun violence to the conflicts in families and communities that feel ready to break through to the surface at any moment. It makes me wish there were a kind of emotional orange safety vest that we could wear out into the world to say, “Please don’t hurt me today.”
We hear a piece of Jesus’ final sermon in the Gospel of Matthew this morning. It’s a strange place to begin a new church year and a new season, especially one where we anticipate the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Today we find him near the end of his life, trying to prepare his friends for his death – and what will happen beyond his death. He’s speaking to them about a kind of cosmic time, a time between his life on earth and a time in the future when he will return again. A tumultuous in-between time. A time that we know all too well because we are living it.
Jesus knows that this time is marked by fragility. Danger and disaster can appear out of nowhere, and that reality fills us with anxiety about the unknown. That’s why Jesus recalls the time of Noah. The book of Genesis tells us that in Noah’s time the earth was corrupt and filled with violence. But people just went about their lives, refusing to change and unaware of the floodwaters that would soon overwhelm them all. Meanwhile, there was Noah, building that big boat in his backyard. We imagine how his neighbors must have rolled their eyes, but he trusted in God and kept on building.
Jesus also gives us these vivid images – two workers in the field. One will be taken. One will be left. And again: two women grinding meal together. One taken, one left. There are far too many families in our own time who know the horror of having a loved one taken. Ask the people in Colorado Springs, in Virginia, in Uvalde, in Buffalo, in Pittsburgh, in too many places to name. So many people taken in an instant.
To be clear, God is not doing the taking. A kind of rapture theology has gained a foothold in popular culture, which suggests that God is snatching up the people most worthy of saving and leaving the rest behind, but that’s not how it works. As we remembered last week, God gives us freedom in this in-between time, a freedom that we often use to what is beautiful and loving. A freedom we sometimes use to hurt each other in tragic ways. None of us are entirely good or entirely bad. We are a complicated mix of good and bad choices – and the consequences that those choices bring.
What the Gospel of Matthew is most interested in is how we live while we wait for what God ultimately has in mind for the world. What does faithful discipleship look like in this strange and tumultuous time?
One hallmark of faithful discipleship is the ability to stay awake when it really counts. To be awake to the needs of those around us and to be ready to help. Later in Matthew’s gospel, on the night Jesus is crucified, we find an example of what keeping awake doesn’t look like. Jesus goes to a garden to pray. He says is deeply grieved, and he asks the disciples to stay awake with him there in the garden, to show that solidarity with him in his hour of agony. After praying for a while, Jesus comes back to find them all asleep. Every last one of them. “Could you not stay awake with me one hour?” he asks. This scene repeats itself three times. Three times Jesus asks the disciples – those who are closest to him and know him best – to stay awake in what he knows are the final hours of his life. Three times Jesus keeps praying, and three times the disciples fall asleep. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
We, too, can find all kinds of ways to fall asleep. I don’t mean literally. Sometimes actual sleep is the thing that eludes us the most. But we have ways of closing our eyes to the worries of the world. You know for yourself what numbs you to the pain of this life, what dulls your sense of compassion.
What will it take to keep us awake this season? Where and how do we want to be fully present in our lives and in the lives of those around us?
That’s what God is urging us to do as we step into this Advent season. Keep awake to the possibilities of this time. Keep awake to all the ways to love each other, to serve people who are hungry and hopeless, to care for those who need some extra tenderness, to release control over what might happen.
Keep awake to the ways we can keep each other safe and well – especially the ways we can fight against the forces of hatred in this world, the death-dealing powers that leave only grief behind them.
God is breaking into the world. That’s what we’re waiting for each day. That’s why we’re keeping awake. We don’t want to miss any of the ways that God is showing up and inviting us to take part in the healing that we long for in this season and every season.
Pastor Greg Paul is the founding pastor of the Sanctuary community in Toronto.[i] He’s served there for the past thirty years, and much of their ministry at Sanctuary is focused on people who are poor, often unhoused. They know that Sanctuary is a place where they will be treated with dignity, even when they are scorned in other places. Many of the people who come to Sanctuary have experienced great trauma, and that trauma continues to threaten their safety and their peace.
Pastor Greg tells this story about one of the folks at Sanctuary, one who had trouble staying awake during worship. He writes:
I remember a man named James, curled up around his backpack in a doorway in one corner of Sanctuary’s auditorium, snoring raggedly and loudly enough for all to hear him as we shared Communion, sang songs, prayed, and preached. It wasn’t an isolated occurrence by any means, but it almost always raised smiles and chuckles, depending how loud he got. And I remember him starting awake one night, frightened and disoriented, and crying out, “What I want to know is, can I be forgiven?” I remember the sigh that rippled through the congregation as we recognized this question echoing secretly in the chambers of our own hearts — even those of us who had the “right” theological answers. We knew, too, that for James it was no abstract query but a wrenching uncertainty rooted in crippling shame.
I wonder what our question would be, the one we would ask if we woke up suddenly in the middle of church. Can I be forgiven?…Am I enough?…Does God really love me as I am?…Will things be OK?…Is reconciliation possible?
The answer to all these questions is yes. Yes. The answers will sometimes come slowly, and we may not recognize them at first, but in response to all our worries and our fears, God says, “Yes…I am here.”
And so, dear friends, keep awake. There’s so much possibility in the days ahead, and we don’t want to miss any of it. Amen. S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!
Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
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