Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44
1st Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
2nd Reading: Romans 13:11-14
One night last week, in the middle of the night, I found myself standing in the laundry room. I didn't know who I was or where I was or what I was doing. I was halfway between sleeping and wakefulness. I knew I had heard a noise and as the fog started to clear, I realized that it was the sound of the buzzer that signals that the clothes are done washing. We don't leave our buzzer on most of the time, but occasionally Nick turns it back on so he is sure to remember to change over the clothes, and he doesn't turn it back off again. I threw the clothes in the dryer and turned it on and headed back to bed.
“Keep awake,” the Gospel reading tells us, alarms and buzzers going off all over the house. “Wake from sleep,” says Paul in his letter to the Romans. Both Paul and the Gospel writer were dealing with congregations who were waiting for the second coming of Christ and were losing focus, dozing off, because Christ's return wasn't as imminent as they thought it would be. The Romans were partying, getting drunk and arguing. Matthew's people were also lacking in faithfulness, hence his warning about Noah and the flood. Remember what happened to the faithless people who didn't make it onto the ark!
Matthew is telling his people that no one knows when Christ will return, when the Kingdom will fully come. He seems to argue that if we don't know, then it isn't very wise to put off preparations. We know from earthquake preparedness, that if people don't know when something is going to happen, it is “out of sight, out of mind.” However, each day that passes, we are one day closer to the event. Out of sight, out of mind, is a common attitude toward climate change, too. We don't feel very motivated to change our behavior because we can't see what's coming or how changing our behavior might help. It is hard to prepare for something when we're not sure what it will be like and not sure when it is coming. So we sit here in this fog, somewhere between sleepwalking and starting to wake up and wondering who we are and what the heck we're doing here.
It isn't exactly that we don't know where we are. We are in a very contentious world, uncertain about our future, arguing with our relatives and neighbors, jealous of others who have nicer stuff than we do or speak more eloquently than we do, oblivious to how we contribute to the world's problems. We are in a world that is sitting idly by while civilians are bombed in Aleppo. We see news stories of native peoples being sprayed with water cannons in freezing temperatures. We hear about incidents of racially-based attacks going up. We know this isn't the way things should be, but we get overwhelmed. We aren't sure where to start. We get acclimated to living in this world. We get numb.
When Jesus first came among us, the Kingdom of God started to break into our world. However, the Kingdom of God isn't fully realized yet. We are somewhere in between the two worlds, the world where we are now and the coming Kingdom. We are beginning to wake up, but we are not fully awake.
The world God promises has started to break in but isn't fully realized. We get glimpses of God's Kingdom in the reading from Isaiah. “The mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains....He will teach us his ways....They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks..., neither shall they learn war any more.” Do you have a vision of the peaceable kingdom? What would a perfect world be, in your view? What would it mean to walk in God's paths?
So we live in two worlds, the world as it is now—unjust, violent, and divisive and the Kingdom God promises of peace and balance. The thing about living in an in-between state, is that we don't have energy and resources to do both. For Isaiah, he was speaking on behalf of those who went hungry during times of war. There literally wasn't enough metal that people could mine and refine with the tools they had to have both plows and swords. During war time, plows would be melted down into swords, so agriculture wouldn't be able to continue in the same way, and men went to war and died in war, so there weren't enough workers to tend the fields. But during times of peace, the swords would be melted together to make plow tips. We can have agriculture or we can have war. We can't have both.
It reminds me of the saying from Jesus, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” There are times when we find we can't straddle the fence, when we can't have it both ways, and when Jesus is asking us to wake up, he is saying not to be oblivious, blinded by the priorities of this world, distracted from the vision that God offers us of a Kingdom of peace. If we're putting our efforts into the priorities of this world, we don't have the energy and resources left to work for the Kingdom. We're either supporting one or the other, by our actions, where we put our energy, etc.
The world is always pulling us in that direction, toward sleepiness, lack of awareness, arguing and divisions. So how do we keep awake and move toward the Kingdom?
We open our eyes. We open our eyes to the damage this world does to people. We listen to people's stories. We get clear on our own stories, where we come from and what makes us tick. We acknowledge our part in hurting others. We make confession.
Then we open our eyes further. We get clear on our values and vision. We read God's word to help us see our place in the larger story of our faith. We learn the values that God has in mind. We begin to see things from God's long-term perspective. We gather with others who share our faith, to get their perspectives and to practice forgiveness and to see other perspectives.
We set priorities. We can't do everything at once, but we ask ourselves what we have the energy and time for, or what we can make energy and time for, and where we can get the biggest bang for our buck, so to speak, where we can make the most difference with what we've got. For instance, with the housing crisis, we've been working on Tiny Houses. We know people without shelter. We know this isn't how it should be. Since it takes years for the county to build affordable housing, we are looking at Tiny Houses to fill a gap in the meantime. That is something that will help people quickly and cheaply. Churches often have property that goes unused and could be supportive places to place these tiny houses. For me, personally, the priority is to get down to Salem to work on ending no-cause evictions and getting a cap on how much rent can be raised each year. We can build all the affordable housing in the world and it won't mean anything if we don't get some rent control and stop people from losing their apartments in the first place. If landlords can raise the rent to whatever they want it to be and as long as Oregon is a popular place to move, people will continue to lose their apartments because they can't afford the rent increases. To get at some of the root causes of houselessness is my first priority. Others may have different priorities based on their gifts and viewpoint.
Once we open our eyes and set priorities, we act. We do something to move in the direction of the Kingdom that Jesus is bringing in, to move toward the vision he lays out. Action is work. The swords aren't beaten into plowshares and then just set in the shed. The idea then is that there is still a lot of hard work to do, planting, weeding, and harvesting, but the results are worth it because there is feasting and joy at the end of it all and the benefit of a better world, with better nutrition and abundant life, a world that more resembles the vision of hope that God gives us, a world that begins to match what God had in mind with the well being of all creatures in mind.
After we act, we reflect. We learn from our mistakes. We decide what was helpful about our action and what could have been better. We incorporate our learnings into further action so we can be even more effective next time.
Only 2 chapters after this Gospel reading, Jesus asks the Disciples to keep awake with him in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prays just before he is arrested. His Disciples fail him and fall asleep and we fail him, too. But what is more important than anything we do, is what God does. God is the one taking us from this messed up, contentious, quarreling, destructive existence, to the vision of peace and compassion that God offers. God is waking us up to see what a mess we're in. God is waking us up to see God's own vision of this world and how this world will be a life-giving place for all creatures. That is God's promise. And God is forming us into participants in bringing that Kingdom. God is waking us up, making us more aware and alive, receptive and hopeful, to see where the Kingdom is already breaking in and how we can live as Kingdom people.
We are standing here blinking through the sleepy fog, half awake in the laundry room. The alarms and buzzers are going off, telling us we're not quite there yet. God's Kingdom is very near, so let's wake up and welcome it, welcome Jesus here to work to transform us and our world into a vision of joy and peace.