For Sunday November 27, 2016, the first Sunday in Advent
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
A guest essay by Melissa Earley, Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church, Northbrook, IL. You can read her blog "Waking Up Earley" at www.melissa-earley.com.
We don’t know we are asleep until we wake up. Have you noticed that? I know when I’m ready to take off my glasses at night and put down my book and squiggle under the quilt, pulling it up to my ears, and listen to my dog sigh. I can feel the exquisite caving into the Sunday afternoon nap. I pretend I’m just “resting my eyes,” but I know that’s a lie as I move from sitting to prone and rearrange the couch cushions. I know I’m going to sleep, but I don’t know that I am asleep until I wake up.
I’ve had nights where sleep hides from me. I hunt for sleep like I looked for my sister and the Lucas kids from across the street and David from next door when we played hide-and-go-seek on summer nights in Parker, Colorado. On those sleepless nights I cannot find a comfortable position. On those nights my brain is an airport tarmac, all noise and heat. I watch the hours tick by. The only way I know I’ve slept is by waking up. I glance at the clock to calculate how many hours it’s been since I last glanced at the clock. Two hours? Three? Even four?
Paul tells the readers of his letter to the Romans, “…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” I suspect that most of the letter’s recipients did not know that they had fallen asleep. They may have felt as alive in their faith as ever. The relationship between these early Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ was marked by tension following the expulsion of Jews from Rome by emperor Claudius in 49 CE, and then the Jews' return following his death in 54 CE. Gentile believers may have thought that God had given up on the chosen people, and some Jewish believers may have wondered if God was fair and just.
Within the passage itself Paul refers to quarreling and jealousy. There’s nothing like a good fight to get the blood stirring. A good fight is also distracting. It keeps us from having to face the empty pews, the fall of church activities in a family’s calendar priorities, and the diminishing public pull of the church. Paul urges us to pay attention to the “salvation that is at hand.” We are like siblings squabbling in the back seat of the car that’s parked at the Grand Canyon. We fight and miss the view, which was the point of the road trip in the first place.
Paul’s instructions earlier in Romans to “let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor,” are all helpful words of instruction as many denominations, judicatories and churches deal with complex and conflicting issues. Love allows us to continue to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and not as enemies even as we wrestle over important questions.
When I woke up on Wednesday, November 9, and faced the certainty that Donald Trump would be president, I felt a new stirring to be vigilant, to pay attention, to do everything I could to keep our president-elect from following through on his most outrageous campaign promises. I vowed to register alongside the Muslims in my community if a registry of Muslims is required. I renewed my commitment to Justice for Our Neighbors, a ministry of free or low cost legal services for immigrants. I made donations to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In the Sunday’s sermon following the election I told my small reconciling United Methodist Church in an affluent suburb of Chicago that we would keep doing what we had been doing — “We are called to follow where Jesus leads. To feed the hungry. To clothe the naked. To give water to those who thirst. To protect the vulnerable. To lift up the dignity of every person.”
Such vigilance is good. This commitment is good. It’s been easy for well meaning church folks to get lulled into complacency. We have a tendency to invest more time in picking new sanctuary carpeting than in caring for the vulnerable, more energy congratulating ourselves for being “good on the issues” than for transforming the world.
On Thursday afternoon, a parishioner came into my office and said, “What a beautiful day!” I hadn’t even noticed. The Matthew text tells us to “keep awake,” lest the thief enters our house, lest a disaster catches us unaware. But constant wakefulness causes physical and mental damage. Without enough sleep we impair our immune system, damage our heart, and increase our risk of cancer. Without enough sleep we decrease our cognitive ability, our memory and our ability to learn. We decrease our libido and gain weight. Sometimes the church’s vigilance for justice is too tight-fisted and clenched-jawed, and we end up as shackled as the people we want to free.
Sabbath keeping helps us claim our freedom from a culture that tells us we are only what we accomplish. It helps us acknowledge our vulnerability and our dependence on a merciful God, equipping us to more fully love our enemy. When we set aside vigilance and work, in favor of rest and play, reconnecting with nature and friends, caring for our bodies and our loved ones, we are in a position to trust God more. While the church remains vigilant, may we also waken to the wonder and mystery of God.