This sermon is inspired by the work of the Reverend J. Edwin Bacon Jr. whose retelling of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s radical sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” inspires my own musings. Bacon is one of my favourite preachers and it is a privilege to be able to adapt and expand upon his work! Our readings included: “The Star Within” a creation story by Dr. Paula Lehman & Rev. Sarah Griffith, Matthew 1:1-17; and Matthew 24:36-44. Listen to the sermon here
Perhaps, it’s the deeper and deeper periods of darkness as the nights go longer and longer. Maybe it’s the looming darkness of meaner and meaner politics as we endure the antics of the clown who masquerades as the most powerful man on the planet. Maybe it is the fearful darkness of the lives of half-a-million children trapped in the endless civil war in Syria. Or maybe, just maybe it is just the darkness that descends upon us as we begin to prepare for the most commercial, materialistic season of the year. Whatever the hue of this darkness, sometimes it feels like this is the season for sleepwalking as we stumble from one ritual tradition to another in our routine journey toward Christmas.
Once again the church’s season of Advent invites us to journey into the deepest darkness of our spirituality so that we might light a candle so that all the world might see; see though the darkness, see beyond our fear, beyond the despair, beyond the terror, beyond the mindless consumption, beyond the endless violence, to the hope that lies in the LOVE that we call God. But sometimes all this darkness lulls me into a state in which all I want to do is sleep. All too often, it is as if I am some sort of robotic, zombie, stumbling in my sleep toward the feint albeit unconvincing hope that it will all be worth it in the end. In my sleepwalking stupor I can scarcely even hear the Gospel’s cry to stay awake! Awake, Awake, and greet the new morn! Keep awake! Wake and watch. Awake, awake, awake, wake-up, wake-up, wake-up. Light a candle against the darkness.
Week after week our Advent celebrations will begin with the lighting of one more candle in the Advent wreath. With each candle, we shine the light of hope, peace, love and joy into the ever-increasing darkness.
Hope, peace, love, and joy these are the dynamics of the enlightenment we little band of sleepwalkers are poked and prodded by the Gospel to offer to our world. Hope, peace, love, and joy, but the overarching value and dynamic represented by the increasing number of candles burning more brightly each week is the dynamic of enlightenment. Light. The ability to see what is going on in our lives. The value of alertness, of watchfulness of consciousness, of awareness.
The physician, Naomi Remen Stone, told Bill Moyers, when he interviewed her about healing and the mind in the early 90s, that all spiritual paths have four steps: show up, pay attention, tell the truth and don’t be attached to the results. Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. And don’t be attached to the results.
Jesus, the great healer, emphasized just how important it is for you and me not to sleepwalk through our lives, to wake-up and see exactly what is going on around us. Jesus is not the only religious founder to emphasize the importance of staying awake! The word “Buddha” contrary to popular misunderstanding is not the name of the founder of Buddhism. The word Buddha is a principle not a person. “Buddha” actually means, “awake”. When he was asked if he was a god the founder of Buddhism whose name was Gautama, responded, “No, I am not a God.” “Then what are you?” he was asked. To which Gautama the man who would become the Buddha answered, “I am awake.”
Our collective struggle to remain awake to what is happening all around needs light bearers who can shine rays of hope, peace, love, and joy to light our way so that we can see beyond the darkness. Sadly, when darkness descends, so many of us would rather just fall asleep. Most of us are very heavy sleepers indeed. Most of us could sleep through just about anything.
Years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached an amazing sermon entitled, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” King was a great preacher, but I dare say that many of us modern-day church-goers, with our severely limited 21st century attention spans, would be hard pressed to stay awake during Dr. King’s sermons which often lasted for 45 minutes to about an hour. So, I won’t risk putting you to sleep by quoting Dr. King’s long sermon, I’ll just share with you a brief snippet of Dr. King’s retelling of a story written by Washington Irving, that many of us may remember.
The story is about Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for 20 years. Dr. King points to a detail in the story of Rip Van Winkle that is almost always overlooked in the telling of the story. But those who are awake, who are paying attention to what is going on would not miss this small detail; a small sign appeared on the village from which Rip went up the mountain for his long sleep. Dr. King drew attention to that small sign:
“When Rip Van Winkle went up into the mountain, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. [But] when [Rip] came down twenty years later the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington, [in] looking at the picture he was amazed . . . [Rip] was completely lost—he knew not who he was. And this reveals to us,” Dr. King said, “that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that Rip slept twenty years, but . . . he slept through a revolution.
While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountain a revolution was taking place that at points would change the course of history—and Rip knew nothing about it: he was asleep. Yes, he slept through a revolution. And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses—that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution. “
Dr. King retold this story back in 1966; some 50 years ago. But I’d like us to imagine what it would mean if we were to have fallen asleep 20 years ago. Think back to 1996, for just a few moments. Remember how young you were. 20 years ago, 1996. What did the signs say back in 1996. Try to remember. Now imagine you have been asleep for 20 years. Now wake up. Pay attention. Be aware of what is going on around you.
When you fell asleep, Jean Crietien was the prime-minister, now that you are awake, Justin Trudeau is our prime minister. That’s right Perrie’s little baby boy Justin is our prime minister. When you fell asleep, Bill Clinton was the most powerful person on the planet. Now that you are awake, Barak Hussein Obamma, a black man, is the president of the United States; and that’s not all but now that you are awake the Americans have elected Donald J Trump as their president. That’s right, the same Donald Trump that just before you went to sleep was staging a beauty pageant. Yeah that guy.
That’s not all, that guy beat Hillary Rodem Clinton, you know Bill’s wife. I’m not kidding. A woman actually won the popular vote, but they are going to make that guy president instead because that’s how the system works; in America a woman can actually win the election by 2 million votes and the man can still win. Are you awake yet? A lot has happened while you were sleeping.
Oh, by the way, while you were sleeping, I was ordained as a pastor in the Lutheran church, oh and also while you were sleeping, I came out as a lesbian and I am still a pastor in the Lutheran church. Oh, and did I mention, I married the love of my life and she just happens to be a woman; and I’m still a pastor in the Lutheran church.
While you were sleeping there have been all sorts of revolutions going on. Times have changed, our phones are computers, yeah personal computers are everywhere now. There’s peace in Northern Ireland. Really, I’m not kidding Justin is the prime minister. You gotta stay awake, pay attention, there are amazing things happening all around us. Big amazing astounding stuff that can frighten the life out of us, and amazing, unimaginable stuff that can inspire hope as we change and evolve into all that we are created to be. But it’s not just the big stuff. Little marvelous stuff happens each and every day. Tiny little rays of light are everywhere. If only we wake-up and pay attention.
Last Sunday, some of you may have noticed that we had two of our little granddaughters spending the weekend with us. After church, I usually have a long nap; I pretty much spend Sunday afternoons in a post-liturgical daze, wandering around like a zombie. But not last Sunday, last Sunday I was tasked with the job of cooking dinner while little Audrey and Evelyn scampered around at my feet clamoring for attention. Pretty much the way they scampered around here while I was trying to preach. Anyway, there I was in all my sleep-deprived zombized state, trying to cook dinner, when Audrey, the three-year-old comes into the kitchen to help. I wasn’t really paying attention. When Audrey calls to me, she’s looking at the photographs that adorn our refrigerator door. List off all the names of family members that she recognizes. Some of the photographs on our fridge door are of family members that live here, the grandchildren, no surprises there. But there are also pictures of my family out west none of whom has little Audrey ever met. So, each time she spies one of my little grand-nieces or nephews, it’s “Who’s that Gran? Gran who’s that? Gran look, look, who is that please?”
I’m busy Audrey. “Gran look at me. I’m seeing someone. Who is that?” Audrey, go and see what Mommy and Grandma are doing, because Gran is busy. “Gran who is that?” Irritated, I glance over to the fridge and see that Audrey is holding a photograph of my Mom and Dad. “Who is that Gran?” That’s my Mommy and my Daddy, Audrey. Confused, Audrey says, “Who?” My Mommy and my Daddy. “Where are they?” They live far far away. “You go see them.” Not for a long time. They live far far away. “On the highway?”
Audrey thinks that we live far away because when she comes to visit, they have to go on the highway and it takes a long time to get to our house. Yes, on the highway Audrey. First the highway then you have to get on an airplane and have a long nap, and then wake up and get on another highway and then I can see my Mommy and my Daddy. This is just too much for Audrey. And she begins to gently rub her fingers over the images of my parents.
I’m on my knees at this point. Down at Audrey’s level paying close attention to the sadness in her eyes, when she grabs me by the chin and looks straight into my eyes and says, “Are you sad?”
Yes, Audrey sometimes it makes me very sad when I miss my Mommy and my Daddy. Audrey thinks about this for a moment and then she spreads her arms open wide, and says, “Don’t be sad Gran, I’m here.”
As my granddaughter embraces me, with a hug that only a grandchild can give, I feel every single ounce of her love for me. So, glad to be paying attention to the love that is right in front of me.
Show up. Pay attention. Tell the truth. And don’t be attached to the results. The values of alertness, of watchfulness, of consciousness of awareness are beyond measure. Hope, peace, love, joy, these rays of light shine all around us.
Therefore, keep awake. So that you too can shine a light in the darkness. Show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and don’t be attached to the results. Hope, peace, love, joy, see the light. Awaken. Let your light shine. Christ comes again, again, and again. Amen.