Time to Wake Up
Five years ago, the New Republic magazine declared 2014 the “Year of Mindfulness”. This term is probably familiar to you because since that time it seems like the concept of mindfulness has exploded onto the mainstream. You can download mindfulness apps onto your phone or go on a mindfulness retreat and no less than thousands of articles and studies that will tell you about the benefits of practicing mindfulness.
However, if you’re not familiar with the concept, the idea is that when we practice mindfulness we intentionally tune into the present moment without dwelling upon the past or trying to imagine the future. We are “mindful” or acutely aware of what is happening here and now without letting the judgment of past experiences or anxiety about what might happen in the future influence our perception.
It makes sense that “mindfulness” techniques are often used among individuals who have experienced trauma. Mindfulness is practiced in hospitals, prisons, veterans centers and even schools to help clients free themselves from dread they carry with them from the past and worry future events they can’t control. People living in uncertain situations can certainly find comfort in being fully present, in the moment, detaching themselves from negative emotions.
In today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus tells his disciples to “keep awake”, one way we might hear this is him telling them to “be mindful”. Don’t let yourself become so distracted or your thoughts so clouded that you miss God’s presence among you here and now. Knowing that mindfulness has benefits to those who have experienced trauma, this advice would make sense for Matthew’s community, which was written to a church being persecuted for their belief in Jesus as the Messiah.
Because of these experiences, they believed the times they were living in were evil, that the world was a desperate, dangerous place. So the thought of not reliving past tragedies or worrying about what was to come would have been appealing. But, while that mindful approach to life might provide relief in the moment, I’m not sure that’s really what Jesus was saying to his disciples when he said “stay awake”.
Because being a Christian means we share collective past we are called to explore through the stories of Scripture and those who have gone before us in faith. And being a Christian means looking forward in hope, even if we are not sure what the future will bring.
When Jesus tells the disciples (and us) to “keep awake” what he’s talking about is the Advent life. The word Advent itself means “coming” and there are three aspects to this coming of Christ into our lives - the coming one that has already happened, the birth of Jesus long ago that lives on in the past of the Christian community. The present coming of Christ here and now in our hearts. And then the one we Presbyterians tend to shy away from talking about, the source of our hope, the promise God has made to us that Christ will come again.
This life we live now is happening in the in-between, between the “already” and the “not yet”. But we cannot neglect their significance in our lives. The “already”, the past, helps us remember how over and over again in moments of tragedy and injustice, God shows up. God showed up in the form of Jesus in the days of the gospel, but God has also continued to show up since then in the form of those led by the Spirit to speak and act in Christ’s name.
It’s because of how God has showed up in the past we can be present in our own moments of trial and still look to the future, the “not yet”, with hope. This hope is what keeps us going when it seems like the world is falling apart. And this hope is what we celebrate on this first Sunday of Advent - hope that Christ has come, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
It’s one thing to talk about this in the abstract. But let me bring it in a little closer to home. On the evening of November 20th (this year, less than two weeks ago), an extension cord tied into a noose was found in the common area of a residence hall on the Auburn University campus. Just a short walk from where we sit right now.
The university immediately began an investigation and declared the actions an act of racial intolerance. But at the same time there were others out there who reacted to this with a much different attitude, one that completely disengaged it from the past or future. This reaction was quick to say, “Oh, it didn’t mean anything.” That’s just kids being silly, it’s not that big of deal, not a threat, not worth overreacting. It’s just an extension cord, tied in a knot. It has nothing to do with the past. It has no bearing on the future.
Five days later a letter to the editor appeared in the Auburn Plainsman titled, “To Those Students Who are Black at Auburn: You are not alone” that gave a very different perspective. If you haven’t read it I encourage you to do so because what it points out is that this physical, tangible object carries with it a collective memory that as a nation we have attempted to blot out over the years. An entire history of racial violence and lynching.
In this letter, black faulty and staff point to that past and share how it is impossible to separate that extension cord found on November 20, 2019 from an entire history of lynchings and racially motivated violence in this nation. They go on to express the emotional reality of what the incident might mean to students of color and they toss a lifeline, a way forward, to students who might be having trouble finding hope as a result of this act of hate. They write to these students:
“I want you to know that you are not alone in this world, on this campus, or in this place. I want you to know that we, the undersigned Black faculty and staff at Auburn, see you in all of the beauty and complexity of your young human selves. I want you to know we ache with you in the same ways; we wrestle with the same horrors and fears and terrors; we are fighting alongside you to be seen and heard and felt. And more than anything else, I want you to know that we are here, we are here with and for you.”
God shows up. But I don’t know that we can truly recognize God’s presence among us unless we are willing to take the past into account. To remember how God showed up in Jesus for those who were hated and oppressed. To remember how throughout our own U.S. History God showed up in prophets among slaves who sang spirituals to encourage one another and among Civil Rights leaders, black and white, who put themselves at great risk in order that justice might prevail.
God shows up. And when God shows up it isn’t just to get us through this one moment here and now. It’s to offer us a way forward. It’s to give us hope. It’s to remind us that Christ has died, but Christ is risen. And that Christ will come again.
We’re fortunate today, on this first Sunday of Advent, to have the opportunity to celebrate not one but two sacraments. Because more so than anything else we do in our worship, these are the acts of faith that tie together our past, present, and future. When we come to the font we remember Christ’s baptism and our own - how his going down in the waters and rising again foreshadowed his own crucifixion and resurrection. His tragic death and then the way forward - a reminder that in Christ, love conquered the grave.
We come to the table and are reminded that on the night of his death, knowing he would be betrayed by his disciples, Jesus still washed their feet and served them bread and wine, telling them that his body and blood would soon be given over for their sake. And that despite their sin, they would always be welcome at that table - just as we are today, when we receive these same gifts and are reminded that one day we will feast again in glory with our Savior.
Remembering our past, being present here and now as the Spirit lifts us into the presence of Christ, we are offered hope - a way forward. The future is still uncertain and God makes no promises we will come through it unscathed. But God does - and God will - show up. Just like God always does. May we “keep awake” this Advent season. Awake to what is happening now, awake to what God might be leading us toward. Remembering always that it’s only by recalling our past that we might recognize the presence of Christ in our midst.