You Better Wake Up and Pay Attention – November 27, 2016

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Nicholas LangNicholas
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Advent
November 27, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

In the movie sequel Sister Act 2, reuniting with the Reverend Mother played by Maggie Smith, Deloris van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) learns that the nuns now work as teachers at St. Francis Academy in San Francisco, a school Deloris herself had attended, which is facing closure. Deloris agrees, though reluctantly, to help teach their disastrous music class, once again taking on the persona as Sister Mary Clarence.

Mary Clarence finds the students uninterested, unruly and rude. She finally dawns a new day and properly takes control of her class, instituting strict rules. She starts by writing these words on the blackboard:
If you wanna be somebody
If you wanna go somewhere
You better wake up and pay attention!

One of the students puts it to music and when the whole class breaks out in spontaneous singing, showing their true potential, Mary Clarence decides to turn the class into a choir. At first, they are skeptical, but change their minds when they find out that the school is destined to close. The class rebuilds the music room themselves and becomes a successful choir under Mary Clarence’s guidance.

Then some of the nuns find trophies in the old music room which show that in past years the school had repeatedly won the all-state choir championship before, so they enter the choir in the contest. At the championship, the choir is intimidated by their talented competition and considers quitting, but they change their minds after Mary Clarence sternly lectures them, reminding them how far they have already come:

To all that lies ahead
Well, in my mind I thought the same one time
And I hear you spouting much talk
‘Bout how you ain’t being led
Ain’t no one telling you what to do
But attitude will catch up with you
And keep you from your destiny.

They go on to win the competition and the diocese rescinds the decision to close St. Francis Academy—something they never dreamed possible when they sat on their apathy and dissatisfaction in that unruly music class. Only when they started to pay attention to what could be did they see their potential and save their school.

Near the end of his life, Jesus began to prepare his friends for what was ahead of them. He told them to wait in hope and told them to actively participate in creating a future. “Watch, be alert, keep awake,” were the buzzwords he used often. He wanted his followers to trust that a new order would replace the old one, a new order that meant wholeness, justice, peace, and the world as God intended it to be.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Homeland Security Advisory System was initiated. You probably remember that t was a color-coded threat scale. We were warned to be vigilant and to take notice of our surroundings, and if we saw something that looked wrong, to say something. Although this system was designed to make us feel safer, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that raising the threat level had negative economic, physical and psychological effects on people. People got more anxious rather than more secure the higher the threat level.

So here comes Matthew today with a high alert. “Therefore you must be ready…” How are we to make sense of it? Does Jesus mean to scare the hell out of us like the DHS and its color code? This is one tricky passage for us coming off our turkey and all-the-trimmings dinner and jumping aboard the get-ready-for-Christmas express. And, to boot, we are offered this passage as we have been drawn into that seasonal darkness when we long for just one more hour of light to be busy, to play, or to gather with friends. For some of you, this darkness may invade your inner being and leave you empty, listless, even depressed.

So along comes Matthew with these eight jarring verses. What’s the meaning of it all? Like so much of Scripture, it is a combination of story, metaphor and mystery. First Jesus uses the example of Noah and the Ark. A non-sailor, Noah, built a boat 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high—miles from the sea and without seeing a cloud in the sky to suggest he need do this. His only blueprint was trusting God that, being alert, that paying attention, was the key to being prepared.

Next we hear two theoretical situations, one set in a field and another in a mill, in which two people are working but in which one is taken and the other left. This snippet has, of course, helped to support the concept of an early nineteenth century theological perspective among fundamentalist believers known as “the Rapture.” As their story goes, the good guys will be taken up and the wicked will be left behind to endure great tribulation. Yet, this passage says that Jesus’ coming again will be just like the days of Noah.

This passage is probably better rendered: “Then two men will be in a field: one will be seized and one will be released. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be seized and one will be released.” It’s better to be “let go” or “released” than “taken” or “seized.” Who was “taken” in the days of Noah? It wasn’t the righteous and upright—they stuck around and inherited the earth after God removed the wicked.

Finally, the burglar and homeowner. Is God going to come as a thief? What a really strange image. A thief invades our home, violates our security, steals things that we value and we’re supposed to get ready for the thief to break in? If we’ll never know when he’s coming, how do we do that? The big surprise is that God will come not as a robber who takes your cherished possessions, but one who takes away the things in our life that are bad for us.

“That is why Jesus will come back like a thief in the night,” writes Mother Barbara Brown Taylor, “so that we do not have time to lock him out. As long as we are successful in that, we will never know what a peculiar thief this really is, who comes not to take but to give. The threat is not outside the door. It is inside us: in our misplaced fears, our misguided defenses. Keep awake, therefore—not to keep the intruder out but to let him in. He may be a thief, but he is God’s beloved thief, who has come to set us free.”

All of this attention getting rhetoric speaks to the truth that things are not the way they are supposed to be in God’s realm. Yet Jesus knew that he would not be returning in their time so what was his reason for sounding the alarm? Could he have been calling their attention to the way things were then—the injustice and oppression of people, the abuses in religion, the greed and its impact on poverty –and was telling them not to just wait for God to intervene, that it was up to them to act just like it took action for those kids in Sister Act 2 to make a difference?

Matthew’s passage is a challenging one but it offers us an opportunity to name the anxieties of our lives and to move past them by putting on the armor of light. That’s easier said than done and it is no secret that there is an abundance of anxiety in our country this Advent. And there is great tension and a sense of deep separation.

Last week, The New York Times did a story on people who had called off Thanksgiving dinner, cancelled Christmas plans with family and a woman who decided to move her wedding out of the country so that her fiancé’s relatives could not attend. The gist of the article: Relationships among friends and family are tested across the political divide.

Some are feeling that God has abandoned them and just waiting for God to come back. Some may be harboring early memories of a God who is unforgiving, judgmental, even vindictive, and waiting for the God of mercy and grace to appear. Some are waiting for God’s direction. Some are longing for justice, wholeness, and healing; for the assurance of peace, safety and security. And some, for just a tiny modicum of hope.

The alert we get this Sunday carries with it the call to live wide awake so that we will be aware of how God is working in us and in our world to bring about God’s reign. It means that we will pay attention to the ways we can resolve conflict and separation—in our families, relationships, neighborhoods, schools, and churches.

It is our call to pay attention to how we can work to assure that young and old, black and white and persons of all color, Christian, Jew, and Muslim, rich and poor, lesbian, gay, straight and transgender folk are safe and valued as God’s children.

It is our call to pay attention to what we can do to stop innocent people from being shot in random violence, to protect immigrant kids who have come here to escape drug lords, to ensure that the needy are not deprived of healthcare, that super power weapons will be controlled and peace-making conversations supported, that we care for our fragile earth. And when we see something wrong, we can’t be silent. We must say something.

It all seems very daunting as I’m sure that choir competition was for those kids in Sister Act 2—until they came together, did the hard work, and took charge of their destiny.

If you wanna be somebody
If you wanna go somewhere
You better wake up and pay attention
When the time is now or never
To make your dreams come true
You gotta wake up and pay attention.

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