Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Intern Justin Perkins, preacher
“Keep awake,” Christ tells us in Matthew’s Gospel. “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” How did those words sit with you this morning?
Almost to the very moment Jesus speaks this phrase, it seems, religious authorities, in concert with the Roman occupation, have gathered to plot Jesus’s destruction. Christ’s ministry of healing and social activism has long provoked their ire, and now brings him to the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem, as he awaits certain torture and death. Yet, before Christ’s passion, Jesus chooses to wait with his disciples as they all anticipate the Passover festival. But the disciples, desperate for any glint of hope in these solemn days, have already pleaded with Christ, saying, “Tell us, what will be the sign of your coming?” Jesus, however, gives them no victory speech, no words for unification, no trumped-up claims toward kingship or distortion of the law in his favor, indeed no kind of visible sign to dispel the gathering shadows of doubt. Instead, Jesus teaches them a parable. At death’s door, Jesus apparently cannot help but continue instructing the disciples, and not with naïve placations for a better future, but in fact calls them to dwell with him in their uncertainty, to be fully present to the moment and all its trials, repeating again to them:
As I hear these words this morning, I cannot help but side with the disciples. Watching and waiting for the election results to trickle in this past week, I am worn down by this act of keeping awake. I feel weary of being on alert at any moment for the anticipated news to come, just as I already feel stretched thin waiting for signs of the pandemic to end. Yet even when the results did arrive, they did not come attached with a blueprint for the way forward, no gilded star emblazoned on our screens or in the sky that suddenly dispelled the suffering present in our nation and around the world.
This is not to downplay the momentous fact that this nation has just elected our first woman vice-president, the proud daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother who each boldly pursued their future through education and activism. This is a real achievement to celebrate and to honor all who have fought and continue to fight for civil rights in our country.
But as even as we receive this momentous event, it remains just that: a moment in history that keeps us waiting at ever new thresholds. Indeed, regardless of this week’s results, a door in history was sure to be opened, a byway in time whose terrain we could never know. Listening yesterday to the promises of restoring the soul of our nation and the choice to advocate on behalf of working people and root out the violence of systemic racism, it was hard also not to believe this already could be true, that our waiting was done. But I could not also mistake noticing along with this the reality that our nation remains freshly wounded and deeply divided. So while the promises of democracy this week still claimed to bear light across this threshold, I could not help but awaken also to the shadows that walked right along with us, even within us. “Keep awake therefore,” Christ’s words return to us. But how? I wonder, when it seems like we still stumble about in darkness, bereft of certain knowledge about the future.
It seems apt that today Jesus’s parable divides its characters into two opposing groups. Ironically, despite Jesus’s command, the parable says, “all of them became drowsy and slept.” No one follows Jesus’s command! Not only that but why has the bridegroom failed to follow through on his promised word? How come they could not have planned better? And why did the bridal party not think they could just share the light among them? And why is the bridegroom so cruel? So before we jump to conclusions about who is eternally shut out of the door to the kingdom of heaven, we might look deeper into the parable Jesus offers. Interestingly, it is at the very moment when everyone falls asleep that the characters are best primed to listen. Out of the dark of the night, once all lights are out and there is no longer the distinction between foolish and wise—adrift in the fertile time of dreams and visions—a cry rises from the depths. “Look!” And the action is instant and unified. Everyone, regardless of their status, got up and crafted light—they each became makers of the cosmos around them, shapers of movement and direction in the world. But how little listening results once everyone wakes up! It is then when old divisions renew and new wounds result.
According to Rabbi Rabbi Menachem Nacuhm of Chernobyl, writing in the work title the Me’or Einayim the second-half of the 1700’s, rabbinic tradition teaches that wisdom—equated with the quality of human awareness—is symbolized by olive oil. This follows Exodus chapter 27, where God commands the descendants of Israel to bring oil to the Tabernacle in order to raise the eternal lamp of God’s word on earth. Thus, in the manner which olives are pressed under great duress to reveal the fine substance of their oil, so too does God’s wisdom seek to reveal itself in our lives and in moments of great duress. Though we may either choose to draw forth this wisdom or choose to not carry it with us, it is one who continually seeks to draw from the wisdom of God’s awareness in our lives, especially in these moments of duress, may draw closer to the source of their soul and the eternal presence of God that resides there.
So too it seems that in a world where competing visions of worldly justice pits our own sense of humanity against each other’s, we can too easily lose sight of the true source and purpose of God’s light of creation in the world. Indeed, when we cling to our own self-styled visions forms of light that reflect only our image, we fall into the same patterns of brokenness and reactivity that fuel a desire to possess, exclude, or take away from others’. And when we confuse this reactivity with a quality of being awake that is more like an anxious alertness, a kind of hypervigilance bred out of fear of the other and of our own self, then that inevitably leads us to exhaustion, despair, and burnout, always bracing for defense against our wounded vulnerability. And in awakening to this deep sense of brokenness, I could not also help but think of those communities who have already known and known intimately this deep brokenness of the world, communities and individuals around the globe and in our own neighborhoods A reminder that we cannot properly see the way forward until we attend to this deep inheritance of brokenness, and that further, we cannot survive unless we bear one another’s burden and take up each other’s cross.
But we know God’s light is different. For we know that in the beginning, God completed all creation by giving us the Sabbath, and it was God who first gave light motion to this world out of the infinite depths. Perhaps we would do better to interpret Christ’s call to keep awake as “awakeness,” not the constant fight for staying awake, but rather the aliveness we feel when we strike into the root of our being—a type of fullness of mind, or the sense of expansive consciousness that reaches into the deep wells of a light already and eternally present in our soul. Perhaps this is the true glory of the Messiah—that through the incarnate body of Christ, God so fully offered God’s own being to bear the light of humanity and all creation, even to the point of despair and torture on the cross and finally death, and from that death to new life and resurrection. So that we do in fact know that no matter what worldly wounds or divisions cast shadows on our souls, God in fact already meets us in the hollow absences, reaches into the depths of our despair and anguish in order to keep aflame the eternal light of God’s wisdom and compassionate loving-kindness, that we might in turn reflect that light upon others to bear their burdens. It’s this confounding and ineffable fullness of Christ’s presence where, though our lights may feel dim, our vessels fragile, we are given the freedom through grace to act out of abundance—to be awake and alive to the fullness of God’s presence not only in our inner life but in ways that binds us together in community. Our longing for justice is but the very substance of God’s wisdom dwelling in us—whose infinite source we can never merit or master, but only to draw forth from the wellspring of the Gospel in the world. We draw toward God’s wisdom, searching for the root of our souls. God’s wisdom abides where ours fails—we have only to keep awake to its source.