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Keep Awake - The First Sunday of Advent

Matthew 24:36-44

Although the music in retail stores and in our homes may begin to sound a lot like Christmas, we’re not quite there yet. The next four weeks are meant to be a season of preparation. Christians around the world believe God first came to us in flesh and blood. So…People, do get ready, for the Christ child is comin’. But first, there’s Advent.

Advent begins with an ending. It’s out with the old and in with the new. We hear that reality framed in our first lesson from Isaiah. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” The prophet says swords that have been lifted up in battle will be put down, because, as the old song from the 60’s put it, they “ain’t gonna study war no more” (Isaiah 2:4). Today’s text and that old folk tune take on new meaning these days, amidst the war in Ukraine.

Our Gospel lesson is no less demanding. Jesus says, “Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man” - that’s an image for Jesus - “(the Son of Man) is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:44, NRSVue). The theme of this section of Matthew is about the need to watch for Jesus when he comes again. Because he will.

Rather than hearing the story of the birth that changes the world, today we get a “last chance” kind of sermon from Jesus. “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42). The reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans echoes that call to wakefulness: “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep” (13:11).

Advent is a season of watching and waiting. But we cannot watch or wait unless we are awake. In a sleep-deprived world, this might not sound like much of a problem. But the kind of wakeful waiting and watching Jesus and Paul have in mind is more about paying attention - and then doing something about what we see and what we hear.

I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to hear the word “wake” these days without thinking of a word that sounds like it. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, consider this: If you change the “a” in “wake” to an “o,” you get “woke.”

That word - “woke - may be hard to hear these days, for several reasons. Yet it was back in the 1930s that the word “woke” first emerged in the African American community. It meant being awake and alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.

About a decade ago “woke” came to describe a broader awareness of social inequalities, such as sexism. It now has become shorthand for any issue of social justice. Which makes it controversial.

Like many other words and phrases,“woke” can be defined in several ways. It can also get misconstrued and misused. Some consider the idea of being “woke” as an insult. If that is so, the original meaning is lost. The question is: How might we reclaim that word? How might “stay woke” still mean, in the words of Jesus, “keep awake”?

Nearly 40 years ago I attended the General Convention of the Episcopal Church as a seminary delegate. It was my first time to go, so I wanted to listen and learn. One of the speakers was Rev. Marie Fortune, a minister with the United Church of Christ.

Marie had recently been ordained to a “specialized ministry,” outside the local church, to address sexual and domestic violence within all congregations in that denomination. At first she had no idea what that ministry might look like. Her work at Seattle Rape Relief helped clarify her call. Among the questions women asked her were, “Why did God let this happen? Do I have to forgive that man? Does God still love me?”

When I heard Rev. Marie all those years ago, I realized that, to borrow the image of “keeping awake,” I had been sound asleep. I read her book Is Nothing Sacred? I began to try and listen to women about their experience of sexual violence in a more aware, awake way.

Earlier this week I went to see the movie “She Said.” It’s about two women who won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the case against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. One critic said that “although there is such darkness in the story…there is a lot of beauty and light about women finding each other.” For me, some of the most moving parts of the story were about how their reporting over three long years created some real, vicarious trauma for those women. But what if they had given up?

Some will say this subject is too personal or too private; that it makes people uncomfortable; that there are other more important things the church needs to address. I say that, if the statistics are accurate and 20-25% of American women have been or will be subjected to some kind of sexual abuse, the church is exactly the kind of place where we need to keep awake, in more ways than one.

Some years ago two women friends were listening to me pontificate. I was going on about something unimportant and off-base. I don’t even remember what I said. One friend responded in this way: “Tom, shut up and sit down.” The other said, “Tom, listen to what we are saying. And believe what you are hearing.” They helped me wake up.

Where else in our common life do you or I - or the church - need to keep awake for the advent of Jesus in our lives? People, we do need to get ready, for we really do not know on what day our Lord is coming! (Maybe today?!) Paul says we need to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light”? (Romans 13:12)? But how?

Let us pray. O God, your servant Ida B. Wells once said the way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth upon them. Give us the grace and the strength each day to wake up and to stay awake, so we might make room for the light of your truth to shine upon and through us, while we get ready for you to come into our world - again! ~ Amen

~ The Rev. Thomas. A. Momberg

November 27, 2022


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