“Stay Woke” – Matthew 26:36-46

Sermon Context: Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, KS. Opening chapel

My friend, Tiny, lives out in the country off a dirt road. His mobile home is perched off of the dirt road on top of a steep hill looking down to the road. David and I had been out to Tiny’s only a few weeks earlier. When we left, we jumped in David’s little Ford Ranger. Instead of driving down the driveway to the road, David drove down the steep but short hill onto the dirt road. Off we went back home.

Several weeks had passed and I was back out at Tiny’s house. I was driving my Chevy long-bed, extended cab with the cattle guard on the front. It was as pretty as it sounds. I parked in the same spot David parked, knowing the easiest way to pull out when I left. It was quite dark when it was time to leave. I hopped in my large pickup, popped it into drive, and headed over the hill. As the front end of my truck crested the hill, I noticed something different about the road. It was no longer a smooth transition down to the dirt road. I had not noticed a large ditch had been dug on either side of the road. It was too late to brake. The dewy wet grass and the momentum of my heavy truck nullified any traction. BAM! Headfirst into the ditch… Then, the walk of shame back up to Tiny’s house.

The Church has found itself in a ditch. We imagined the road would continue to be accessible by the old paths we once took. While we were sleeping, ditches were dug out and we failed to pay attention to what was altered. The ditch of diminishing authority, of moral failure, of social disengagement, or absent accountability. Our moral imaginations have become stymied and stagnant.

I would like to offer a title for consideration: “Stay Woke.” Stay woke. Rev. Otis Moss III talks about “staying woke” as a movement and call to “be conscious in an unconscious age.” Being woke is the clarion call to be aware of the cultural and societal frameworks shaping our lives and to rouse our collective energies to be more than passive observers.

For some of us, the phrase “stay woke” has a lot of political baggage. It may be the opinion of some that this phrase is unwarranted, too political, and too controversial to be used in Christian worship. Please know I hear those concerns. Yet, if we cannot talk about the pressing issues of the day, many may question the Church, “Why on earth do I need your Gospel?” I don’t recall who said it, but I think it bears repeating: “We must not socialize the gospel. We must gospelize the social.”

Politics certainly falls in the category of social. However, I don’t imagine that “gospelizing the political” will resemble a Christian nation-state, whose life is often rooted in tribalism, the myth of perpetual progress, and violence. Jesus’ ministry runs counter to these narratives at work around us. By “gospelizing the social and political” I mean we see all categories of life through a Gospel-lens, a theological framework. In other words, God makes claims on the ways we arrange our lives in this world.

We tend to think of theological concepts in doctrinal terms: holiness, sanctification, Christology, pneumatology, eschatology. These are all important terms. Might I suggest some equally important theological concepts for our consideration: incarceration, food insecurity, sex trafficking, consumption and capitalism, foster care, economic exploitation, red-lining, white supremacy, sexism, ableism. Each of these concepts imagines a theological construct of the world, envisions the “good life,” and arranges our desires to live out the claims those narratives entail.

Ghettos and projects are theological concepts. Tupac Shakur once wrote: “I wonder if Heaven got a ghetto?”[1] If we imagine there are no ghettos in heaven and Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we should ask why ghettos exist in the landscape of our cities. Ghettos are not simply unfortunate social realities, they are theological categories which dismiss bodies and entrap persons in social, economic, psychological patterns of despair and desperation. If the hope of the Gospel cannot address such social issues, one might also question the extent of God’s reign. The Gospel intersects the political and social and calls all systems of inequality and despair into question to account. But, are we woke to the realities our corporate lives, including within the Church, create among the most vulnerable among us?

The disciples follow Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane. The gathering gloom hangs over the company. It is the same shadow that descends on the upper room as they remember the Passover. The long shadow is shaped like a cross. Though the disciples do not see it, they sense something is coming. Peter even boldly proclaims, “Even if everyone else falls away, I will NEVER fall away!” This is the claim of every disciple who initially follows Jesus without counting the cost of discipleship – to follow Jesus is a journey toward the cross.

Jesus leads his disciples to the Garden to pray and to keep watch. Like shepherds tending their flock, they are to keep watch, to pay attention while Jesus prays. Jesus goes a little beyond them to pray, to discern, to wrestle. With great anguish, Jesus struggles with the call he received in his baptism and confirmed in the wilderness – a radical obedience to the kingdom of heaven, regardless of the backlash. In this scene, there is no tempter’s voice boasting loudly like the one Jesus encountered in the wilderness. Now, it is the eerie silence and the deepening sense of isolation. Like the calm before the rushing storm, the Garden is deathly silent, save for the agonizing prayer which Jesus offers to the Father. Wading into the morass of public life does not bring one certainty, or unanimous approval, or remove the risk of violence, physical or verbal. Quite the opposite. Proclaiming an alternative word, a subversive way to the dominant narrative will likely lead us to places and seasons where we experience abandonment. The weight of obedience comes crashing in.

“If this cup may pass from me…”[2] Bread, body broken. Wine, blood poured out. Passover and paschal lamb. Exodus hopes. Homecoming promise. Powers dethroned. Baptized and liberated community set apart. In the dethroning of Egyptian and pharaonic powers, the first-born sons of Egypt die. The deathly practices of empires fall back upon themselves to their own destruction. But, now, when confronting the powers and principalities of this world, Jesus becomes the first-born son offering his own life in their place.

Jesus’ eyes are wide open in his prayer. He recognizes that confronting the destructive practices of this world agitates anger and violence in religious and political communities quite satisfied with the way things currently operate. The cross is the manifestation of that societal anxiety at work in our midst. The cross is the theological category of Rule of Law and social order which maintains privilege and peace under the threat and utilization of violence. Fear coerces and co-opts. Prayer may seem an unlikely, unproductive avenue for confronting deathly empires. But it is impossible to embody a Kingdom-kind-of-love when we are controlled by fear and anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong here. The prayer in which Jesus engages is no lightweight “thoughts and prayers.” This is no escapism that throws happy thoughts or sad face emojis at the deep wounds of the world. Jesus prays as one contending and yet submitting to God’s direction. “Not my will, but your will be done.”[3] Such prayer inevitably leads those who pray it to the places of deepest pain, broiling darkness, and festering woundedness in our world as embodied signs of God’s presence. Immanuel – God with us!

Jesus returns from praying to find the disciples are fast asleep. They do not recognize the hour. They cannot see the crash course with the cross to which Jesus is leading them. They are weary, exhausted, unable to maintain their watch. Jesus calls them to stay woke, to pray, so they might not fall into temptation. Yet, each time he returns, they have drifted off into the hazy, unconscious world of slumber.

This is not Sabbath rest. This is the slumber of anesthetized uncaring. It’s the drifting of idle unawareness. This sleep quarantines and cloisters, builds barriers and creates chasms, it ruptures relationships and silences suffering. This is turning of eyes, averting the gaze, so that we might not become too disturbed, distraught, or distressed by the suffering around us.

It is easy to be lulled asleep by the comfort of our own privilege. There are churches that refuse to recognize their privileged position in society because they are caught up in the game of church growth, numerical success, ecclesial ladder climbing, and survival. We are more likely to decry our loss of rights as religious institutions and clergypersons than we are to lament and confess our unwillingness to seek justice in our society and in our world. We are quick to play the martyr card unless, of course, martyrdom becomes a real option – then, we’re furious at our mistreatment!

Jesus calls his disciples to watch and pray so they will not fall into temptation. Jesus calls them to know the time and to be attuned to God’s call to be witnesses to an alternative Kingdom way. The way of the meek, the way of the peacemakers, the way of those who mourn and lament, the way of the merciful, and the pure in heart, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the poor in spirit… THE WAY OF THE CROSS!

Watch and pray that you might not fall into temptation. Stay woke and pray so that you do not fall into temptation by inoculating ourselves to the suffering around us, to remaining silent and passive. Stay woke and pray that you are not tempted to sleepily preach a gospel of privilege suited to the desires of itching ears rather than a Gospel that embodies a new way of life for all. Stay woke and pray to have eyes wide open to the destructive powers of this world and that you might not be tempted to avoid the cross.

Let it not be lost on us that all the disciples abandon Jesus when the cost of discipleship becomes too steep, when it is easier to go back to sleep than remain awake. It’s more convenient to preach a palatable Gospel than shake the world. We may make bold promises to follow Jesus and never fall away. But, we are the same disciples whose eyes become heavy with cynicism, exhaustion, anger, pride, privilege, or fear. We may think ourselves “woke” and yet are too often blind to our own complicity in the world’s brokenness. We lay sleeping, dead in our slumber, unable to keep watch.

Yet, time and time again, Jesus returns to the disciples to rouse them to “stay woke.” Jesus calls again and again. The voice of Jesus pierces our slumber to open our eyes and see again the world around us. When we have not kept watch, Christ has kept watch. When we were unable to drink the cup, Christ drank the cup for us! When we were unwilling to be broken and poured out, Christ was broken and poured out for our sake! “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!”[4]

 

[1] 2Pac, I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto (Interscope, 2011).

[2] Matthew 26:39, my paraphrase.

[3] Harrelson, Luke 22:42.

[4] Harrelson, Ephesians 5:14b.

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The Church, Marriage, Sex, and Prayer

I recall one of my professors, who was also a member of the church I attended, saying something like: “The purpose of marriage is not to make you happy but to make you holy.”  It’s been a number of years since I heard this line, but it recently came to mind as I have been reflecting on marriage, the Church, sexuality, and prayer.  Yes, that’s a seemingly odd list.

It’s an odd list, until we begin to think about what is at the center of all of these things: God.  Prayer, marriage, the Church – and, yes, even sexuality (think desire rather than simply a physical act) – are all intended to be oriented toward God.  But, as we often experience, when God ceases to be at the heart of these entities and activities, they become grotesque aberrations of their intended purpose.  That is to say, they are steered from their purpose of making us holy – set apart to reflect God’s character.

Sexuality tends to get the most press where this is concerned.  It is not difficult to drudge up the culture that utilizes sex in manifold harmful ways.  Nor is it difficult to find where the Church has strayed in its misuse of sex either.  However, I think that many of the issues that we are struggling with in the area of sexuality spawns from our lack of reflection on the connection between marriage and the Church.

The apostle Paul uses marriage as a metaphor for the Church.  Namely, Christ and the Church are bridegroom and bride, brought together to be one Body.  We are familiar with this association, but we don’t always see the reverse as true.  Yes, Christ and the Church are like a marriage.  But, is marriage really like Christ and the Church?  We struggle with that particular phrasing, if not explicitly, at least implicitly.  And, we may struggle with both the reality of the Church and marriage as sanctifying spheres in our lives for the very reason that we think “happiness” is of the utmost importance for whether or not something has value.

If we were to be honest with ourselves, it would be difficult to deny that marriage or our commitment to the Church is largely based on whether our needs are satisfied in the relationship.  If our spouse, our local church, or some person in the church rubs us the wrong way, upsets us, or doesn’t meet our perceived needs, then we are quick to look elsewhere for satisfaction or fulfillment.  We look outside the marriage and outside the Church for something more, for something that will finally make us happy.

We treat the institutions (that’s not always a dirty word) of marriage and the Church like shopping malls, which makes us consumers.  That puts us in control.  When marriage or the Church are their to serve our happiness, we have essentially made ourselves the end goal.  In other words, we have placed ourselves in the place of God – simply put, idolatry.  And, oh, how our moods and desires are like trashbags caught in the wind, blown to and fro.  Our passions as consumers change with each passing season.  We cast off marriage like changing a shirt.  And, I’m afraid the Church doesn’t fare much better, especially when we see so little use in it making us happy people.

However, if holiness is the proper end because it is pointing us finally toward God, that says something about commitment (rather than our happiness) as intrinsic and necessary for both the life of a marriage and the life of a local congregation.  Of course, our model is Father, Son, and Spirit in this regard.  They have been committed to the Creation, even after its descent into sin.  They have patiently worked with God’s people throughout time, remaining faithful even when we were unfaithful.  It is the persistence of God that enables our faithfulness which leads unto holiness.

That’s not to say that joy isn’t an important part of holiness.  But, we shouldn’t confuse joy with happiness.  Joy is content in all circumstances.  Happiness tends to fluctuate with my comfort level, which God doesn’t seem as concerned about.  If we could extend my professor’s statement to the Church, it would read: “The purpose of the Church is not to make me happy but to make me holy.”  We could also say the same of sexuality (for instance, how we talk about celibacy) and prayer.  This would drastically change the way we struggle with conflict and the mundane parts of being married, serving the Church (rather than schism), practicing prayer, and being sexual beings.

If holiness is the point, then our happiness is not the goal.  And, holiness is only possible insofar as we remain faithful to a God that calls us to live in faithful, covenantal relationship with God, with others, and with Creation.  And, if this is true, then the purpose of such things is not the seeking of my own best interest(s).  Rather, it is seeking the best good for others (i.e., God’s peace or “shalom”).  John Wesley once said, “There is no personal holiness without social holiness.”  Thus, God has wed us together; we need each other.

Silence is Golden

Today, I had lunch with a professor from Nazarene Theological Seminary, Dr. Doug Hardy.  He teaches in the area of spiritual disciplines.  We had an intriguing conversation concerning practices in the Church.  I asked him what he thought is a need in the Church that has been forgotten or left out, with the understanding that each church has different needs.  He suggested that perhaps we need to recapture silence and the capacity to wait on the Lord.  I thought this was insightful, especially considering that we live in a culture of entertainment, distraction, and disconnection.  We are extremely fragmented.  Go into any restaurant and they’re likely to have music blasting or a television turned to a game.  Our cellphones are our constant companions.  So much so, that we would rather text the person sitting next to us rather than engagement them in actual conversation.  I don’t feel that I’m overly exaggerating the situation, even within the Church.

I wondered out loud if this absence of silence and waiting upon the Lord – opening space up for God – is the reason for the lack of genuine discourse and Christian conference.  We are combative and quick to demonize those we disagree with.  Not to mention, we are not likely to listen and really hear the other’s position – especially if it is opposed to our position.  My rambling concluded with this point: If we’re not willing to listen to God, then what makes us think we’ll listen to people.  If we are not cultivating space in which to listen to God, is it any surprise that we are unable to have charitable discourse among ourselves?  I ask this question of myself and have to look honestly for ways to open up space, to provide places of silence – to be still recognize who is Lord… even in the midst of difficult, challenging conversations.

Hannah as Model Prayer: Sabbath Reflection from 1 Samuel

“In a world in which God is the primary reality, worship is the primary activity.  In worship, we cultivate attentiveness and responsiveness to God.  Cultivate, because if we live by mere happenstance – looking at what is biggest, listening to what is loudest, doing what is easiest – we will live as if God were confined to the margins of our lives.  But God is not marginal; God is foundational and central.  The person who lives as if God sits on a bench aat the edges of life, waiting to be called on in emergencies, is out of touch with reality and so lives badly…  And the worship continues.  Worship is not something one does to get something, and once it is got can be discontinued.  Worship is a way of life.” – Eugene Peterson (First and Second Samuel Westminster Bible Companion, page 21-22).

Sabbath is cultivating attentiveness and responsiveness to God.  It is allowing God to be more than marginal in our lives.  He becomes foundational and central.  In this way, we are in touch with true reality and thus able to live rightly.