Passage: Matthew 25:14-30
Date: November 30, 2008
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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The Rev. Laurie Vischer
The First Sunday of Advent
November 30, 2008

What keeps you awake?

Bills? Worry about your parents? A child? The stock-market? A broken friendship? Poverty? War? Hunger? Anger? Concerns about finding a job? Or losing one?

“Keep awake” the gospel says. As someone who suffers occasional bouts of insomnia, that part of the passage for today caught my attention. As did this writing, by humorist and “recovering lawyer” Mad Kane on How to Become an Insomniac: Becoming an insomniac isn’t as easy as it
might appear. But with the help of these guidelines, dark circles and a cranky disposition will soon be yours.
1. Be born into a family of worriers.
2. During your infancy, become accustomed to dozing in serene silence, a state you will never encounter as an adult.
3. Have parents so desperate for peace and quiet, that they routinely send you to bed hours before you feel even a hint of fatigue. This will allow you to develop helpful habits like gazing at the ceiling, counting sheep, and plotting revenge.

“Keep awake,” the gospel says. “Beware, keep alert. Keep awake for you don’t know when the master of the house will come. . .”

What are we to make of these words, and the end-of-the world language–this first Sunday of Advent?

The early Christian religious orders, the desert fathers and mothers from the fifth century, practiced a daily examination of conscience. Then, all members of the community assessed how their behavior of the day had just past reflected (or neglected) the conduct expected of them as Christians.

The original teaching behind “watching” had to do with watching one’s thoughts. Watching that our thoughts turn away from compulsions about things, food, sex, apathy, anger and pride, and turn toward God. (In later tradition, the “watchfulness” became response to the second coming.) Today, I’d like to invite us to consider a way of understanding this passage, which would change our daily behaviors. A way to live holy lives in the midst of the ordinary.

A working mother, Susan Cosio expressed it beautifully in NPR’s This I Believe essay. She wrote: “My pursuit of spiritual truth is not about religion as much as it is about relationship. It is not about intellectualizing God's commands, but about internalizing God’s truth within my heart as well as my head -- an understanding so deep and intimate that it affects not only my thinking, but my behavior as well.”

This Advent: Keep awake, the Gospel says.

Being a faithful Christian doesn’t just happen. It requires practice! Practice like that of the skilled dancer, musician or athlete. So during these four weeks before Christmas, let’s practice together. We can begin with these actions, suggested by today’s text:

Wake up your spiritual senses. Watch your thoughts. Trust in God to be with you.

Awaken your Spiritual senses

Can you remember a time when your spiritual senses were awake? When you were aware of deep peace, or joy, or a sense of being with God?

Our family recently saw the film The Sound of Music. In the movie, Captain Von Trapp was very stern and withdrawn after losing his first wife. He was also very angry about Germany’s threat to Austria. He was sullen and extremely harsh. His spiritual senses were dulled and his heart closed. He withheld affection and love from his seven children. In the meantime, with governess Maria’s help, his children learned to sing. At one point, Captain Von Trapp was in a rage, and he suddenly heard strains of sweet music coming from his own house. He went inside to find the children singing in beautiful harmony:
“What joy fills my heart with the sound of music. . .” Captain Von Trapp was stunned into thoughtful silence and then he said with great emotion, “The music. . .I had forgotten. . .”

We do forget. Most of us are not awake.

We forget who we are-- God’s own. We forget why we’re here– to love and enjoy God and to love and serve one another. There are two Greek words for “watch” in the passages we read today. One comes from the root word, nepsis which means to observe, be alert. (The opposite of this word is the root of our hypnosis.) And at times it seems that we are indeed hypnotized.
Hypnotized by too much. To much stuff, too much noise. Lulled into non-life.

Years ago, Neil Postman wrote that we are Amusing Ourselves to Death. I have long thought that our nation’s extreme immersion into entertainment and escapism seems to be the result of a kind of collective, cultural depression. When we are isolated in our cars and headphones, when we are constantly plugged into electronics and media, we won’t be alive in Spirit. And our longing for connection deepens. . .

“Dear desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.”

Watch your thoughts
(French writer Francois Rabelais wrote: “I never sleep comfortably except when I am at a sermon.” Are you asleep yet? )

It’s helpful, when studying scripture, to notice what came before and after the passage you are studying. Immediately after the parable of the man who commanded his doorkeeper to keep watch, we read in the next chapter, that Jesus comes to Gethsemane, before his arrest, and asks his disciples to stay awake with him. And do they stay awake? No, they fail not once, not twice, but three times! Even as Jesus accepted his suffering, his followers slept. The challenge for the disciples, and for us today is to follow Jesus, not with doctrines, but with behavior. We can begin to change our behavior by changing our thinking. We can and should actively seek to turn our thoughts toward God and away from all that would pull us in wrong directions.

You may be thinking: it’s hard enough to control my actions! Why this talk about controlling my thoughts? The simple answer is, it’s easier to stop the thought at the very beginning than to try to stop the action, later. Remember: its about being the guard at the gate of mind, and watching the thoughts.

For example, I can perfectly serene, the model Christian, all things working smoothly. I’m loving and open to the world. And then, driving home, another driver abruptly cuts in front of me. My first thought is fear: I must slow down. The second thought follows quickly, (accompanied by words I won’t repeat): anger with the other driver. The longer I nurse my anger, the more I put myself in a superior position, and the farther and farther away I drift from being able to see anything clearly and honestly. If I stew long enough in those thoughts, it may lead to a violent action.

It’s easier to stop the thought at the very beginning–then to try to stop the action, later on.

Thoughts have power, and we all have choice in how far we let our thoughts stray. For human beings, thoughts tend to cling and grow in the direction of things, food, sex, anger, and pride. (Basically, the list of the seven deadly sins.) Sr. Meg Funk, one of my teachers, says “Anger is not of God.” Even though we will have anger rise again and again in us (that’s life!), we can learn to see the anger thought and resist its power. Compassion for ourselves and for the person who prompted our anger is possible. (And there’s a difference between anger and a desire for justice.)

The wisdom of our tradition, is simply to remain in God’s presence and when thoughts rise, to redirect them. This effort is about single minded attention. This can be a liberating experience and we will fall into the mystery of hearing the still, small voice awakening to the subtle presence of God in our everyday experience.

“Dear Desire of Every Nation, Joy of Every Longing Heart.”

Trust in God

“But about that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

So what do we do with that part in the passage of Mark that suggests that the end of the world is imminent? Scholar H. May wrote that the apocalyptic in Mark had nothing to do with holding the carrot of eternity under the nose of the believer.” He suggested that the reason for the apocalyptic was to deny easy victory. To force God’s people--to accept the agony of history, the birth-pangs of creation. We yearn for God’s promise of fidelity and fulfillment, but in the meantime, we turn our full attention to the ambiguous face of history and the world now.

We are called to be alert. For example, I noticed in today’s scripture readings and songs repeated references to Israel and Zion. In those songs, I’m painfully aware that this week is
fourth week that Israel has completely sealed crossings into the Gaza Strip for even the most basic humanitarian shipments, despite desperate appeals by the UN Secretary and others that Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians are potentially facing one of the largest man-made humanitarian catastrophes. Half of Gaza's population is under the age of 15.

What do we do with the pain of the children in Gaza? What do we do with the suffering in Mumbai and the Congo and all the pain and suffering in the world today?

We need to remember that Mark’s Gospel was given to a people well acquainted with systems of domination and oppression. The temple priests and religion were part of the oppressive system. Jesus showed that there would be an end to that way of things when he told of the coming destruction of the temple. Jesus’ message to his followers was to keep alert to what God will do to bring about new life. Trust that God is at work. The kingdom is here, but not yet! The “not yet” is the yearning we feel during Advent. The “not yet” is our response. And while we are “not yet”, allowing ourselves to be moved by the suffering of others is part of following the Christian way. I want to close with this story of a young man so moved.

A nurse took the tired, anxious serviceman to the bedside. "Your son is here," she said to the old man.

Heavily sedated because of the pain of his heart attack, he dimly saw the young Marine standing outside the oxygen tent. He reached out his hand. The Marine wrapped his hand around the old man's, squeezing a message of love and encouragement.

The nurse brought a chair so that the Marine could sit by the bed. All through the night the young Marine sat there in the poorly lighted ward, holding the old man's hand and offering him words of love and strength. Occasionally, the nurse suggested that the Marine move away and rest awhile. He refused.

Whenever the nurse came into the ward, the Marine was oblivious of her and of the night noises of the hospital. Now and then she heard him say a few gentle words. The dying man said nothing, only held tightly to his son all through the night. Along towards dawn, the old man died.

The Marine released the hand he had been holding and went to tell the nurse. She started to offer words of sympathy but the Marine interrupted her. "Who was that man??" he asked. The nurse was startled, "He was your father," she answered.

"No, he wasn't. I never saw him before in my life."

"Then why didn't you say something when I took you to him?"

"I knew right away there had been a mistake, but I also knew he needed his son, and his son just wasn't here. When I realized that he was too sick to tell whether or not I was his son, knowing how much he needed me, I stayed."

The next time someone needs you, just be there. Stay with your heart open. Trust God to be with you.
What would your life be like? What would our lives be like if during this Advent we learned to watch our thoughts, especially our angry ones, and turned them toward our Loving God? What if our spiritual senses were so awakened that all service that we undertook came from joy? What if each of us trusted that God will be here with us? What would the world be then?