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"Stay Awake," by Zachary Helton

From Zephaniah 1

Remain silent in the presence of Sovereign YHWH, for the Day of the Lord is near. When that time comes, I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and punish those who are complacent in their sin, I will seek out those who say in their hearts, “God will not do good or evil.” Yet, their wealth will be plundered, their households looted. They will build houses and never live in them, plant vineyards but never drink their own wine. The great Day of the Lord is near and coming fast! How bitter the sound of the Day of the Lord, the day of the warrior’s war cry! That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and agony, a day of ruin and of devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of cloud and fog, a day of trumpet roar and battle cry against fortified towns and high corner towers. I will bring such distress on the people that they will grope like the blind because of their sins against YHWH. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung; neither their gold nor their silver will save them. On the day of YHWH’s wrath, in the fire of divine jealousy, all the earth will be consumed.

From 1 Thessalonians 5

But as to specific times and eras, sisters and brothers, you don’t need me to tell you anything— you know very well that the Day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. Just when people are saying, “At last we have peace and security,” then destruction will fall on them with the suddenness of labor pains, and there will be no escape. But you, sisters and brothers, are not in the dark. The Day of the Lord will not catch you like a thief. No, you are all children of light and children of the day. We don’t belong to the darkness or the night. So, let’s not be asleep as others are—let’s be awake and sober! Those who sleep do so at night, and those who get drunk do so at night. But we belong to the day, so let us be sober. Let us put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation. God has destined us not to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Savior Jesus Christ, who died for us so that, whether awake or asleep, we might live together with Christ. So, encourage each other, as you are already doing.

Sermon

Much has been written about the great and terrible “Day of the Lord,” mostly by people too eager to punish somebody, or to prove their own sense of worth against someone else. It’s an idea filled, for many of us, with images of fire and judgment, with sheep on one side and goats on the other, with the righteous going off to eternal paradise and the sinners to eternal hellfire. The “Day of the Lord” has become a container into which we can dump all of our unresolved shame until it’s heavy enough to use as a weapon to clobber “unbelievers.” But, as with most beautiful things hijacked by fearful people, there is another side to it. What if, when we read about the coming “Day of the Lord” and how it’s going to surprise us “like a thief in the night,” we’re not hearing about some far off, mythological drama, but an experience we already know very well? What if the “Day of the Lord,” is, more simply, the day when Reality can’t be ignored anymore? It’s the day when the lies you’ve been telling yourself prove as useless as a tent against a hurricane, when all you’ve done, denied, or refused to face finally swings back at you and you have no place left to duck. It’s the day when you realize the wealth and status in which you’ve put your trust cannot protect you from the cancer ravaging your body. It’s the day when you realize the military in which you’ve put your trust is no match for a natural disaster. It’s the day when the phone call comes in, when the car misses the stop sign, when the election results are tallied and all of a sudden you realize you’re not nearly as in control as you thought you were. These are the great and terrible “Days of the Lord” – not because there is some old bearded man pulling strings and trying to teach you a lesson, but because, quite simply, Reality wins every time, rolling over our shoulds and shouldn’ts like a Caterpillar bulldozer. If, as Byron Katie suggests, “God is Reality,” then the “Day of the Lord” is the day when Reality breaks in. As the prophet Zephaniah writes, “The people rest complacently on their dregs, saying in their heart ‘God will not do good, nor will God do harm. We are safe, and things, more or less, will not change from the way they’re going right now.’ Yet even their wealth will be plundered, and their houses laid waste… the Day of the Lord is bitter… and neither their silver nor their gold will be able to protect them.” Have we not, each of us, experienced the “Day of the Lord?” Regardless of how understand this phenomenon though, whether you believe what I just said, or you need to hold to a day of fiery judgment, we can agree on one thing: It hurts more when it takes you by surprise. Paul, in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, says, “You yourselves know very well that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, 'There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape. But you, beloved, are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief. You are children of the day, so do not fall asleep, but stay awake and sober… as indeed you are doing.” Reality can be a shock to the system when it jars you out of your dream, like a bucket of ice water dropped on an unsuspecting passerby, so Paul’s teaches his people to stay awake. Once, my grandmother was on a plane to Colorado, and the woman next to her had fallen asleep somewhere over Missouri. When it came time to land, my grandmother thought that the courteous thing to do would be to let the woman know, so, gently, she touched the woman’s arm and in a steady voice, she said, “Excuse me, sorry to wake you, but the plane is going down.” The woman didn’t appreciate it. Reality hits you in a different way when it snaps you of a dream. “Stay awake,” Paul says, “and be ready for it.” I love that Paul uses this image of “staying awake,” because, just as we said the “Day of the Lord” isn’t so much a one-time event but a recurring phenomenon, the same can be said for “waking up.” Waking up is not a one-time event, because there are so many dreams to wake up from, and if you think about it, the “Day of the Lord,” like the “kick” from the movie Inception,” is often the very thing that wakes us up. “It’s that feeling of falling that jolts you awake. It snaps you out of a dream.”[1] The addict walks around in the dream that one more fix will bring them the peace they’re after, but it’s only after hitting rock bottom that they wake up to the Reality that peace is in letting go. Paul walked around in the dream that he was more entitled to God’s approval than anyone else, but it was only after being struck blind on the Damascus road that he woke up to the Reality that all are God’s beloved children, even the lawless Gentiles. Many Americans like me walked around for a generation in the dream that this was a just nation of equal opportunity… but it was only after we elected a white supremacist to our highest executive office that we woke up to the Reality that, as the poet said: America is a dream that has never been and yet must be![2] Life, it seems, is a series of Days of the Lord coming at us like thieves in the night, waking us up again and again from the dreams keeping us blind and numb. We wake up. We stay awake. We keep waking up. This is the highest goal of all healthy religion, to help us in that life-long work of waking up. We once stumbled around like drunks in the night, but now we live as children of the day. We were blind, but now we see. It’s a goal so perennially recognized that we hear it on the lips of artists and activists who would, for good reason, never darken the door of a church. “Stay woke!” has become the chorus of our time. “Wake up to systemic racism and stay woke!” “Wake up to misogyny and stay woke!” “Wake up to the limits of capitalism and stay woke!” But here’s where things may get more difficult. It’s easy to commit to staying awake when the alarm bells are still going off and we’re shaking the ice water from our hair, but when things calm down… when things appear to be going well… when you are no longer face to face with the more jagged edges of reality and our stories and substances begin to call sweetly to us like sirens from the rock… then staying awake becomes its own challenge. We become like parents, up since 2am with a crying infant. In those moments, there is nothing in the whole wide world that sounds better in that moment than your warm bed and the blessed promise of oblivion. For some of us, this is the position we seem to find ourselves in. The day has been long, the work has been hard, but now it looks, for the moment, like things may be okay. It looks like this may be the time to order take out, have a drink (or six), turn on, tune in, and drop out… but as Paul said to the Thessalonians and Zechariah said to the Israelites of old: We cannot do that. You have woken up to Reality, you have glimpsed behind the curtain, the Day of the Lord has crashed through your dreaming once already, and you must, must, must stay awake. Just like the first time, Reality will hurt if it takes you by surprise again. I know that may seem cruel of me to say. I know how many of us have been breathing long sighs of relief and playing songs of celebration. A fearmongering, xenophobic leader was ousted from the White House. Pfizer has announced a vaccine with a 90% efficacy rate. It looks like the Supreme Court is going to allow the Affordable Care Act to continue to protect 20 million Americans through the pandemic. But listen: We still live in a nation who cast 50% of its vote for white supremacy and fascism. So we must stay awake. COVID-19 is infecting more people per day right now than it has at any time over the past seven months. So we must stay awake. We still live in a nation more cared about the bottom line than the health and wellbeing of its most vulnerable citizens. So we must stay awake. And if that sounds exhausting, I have good news. We must stay awake, but we also have more dreams to wake up from. The dream that you don’t have the energy or ability… The dream that you aren’t enough… The dream that you’re on your own… The dream that your opponents are evil villains and not prodigal children of God… The dream that you are not perfect and loved just as you are… The gospel is, by definition, “good news,” and the good news is that these, too, are dreams from which we must wake, and when we do, we will discover that the deeper we get into Reality, the more we discover that it is kind and bountiful and enough. Once, there was a man who, while sleeping in his house, was set upon by a thief in the night. The thief woke him from his dreaming, and taken by surprise, the man was beaten and robbed of many of his most treasured possessions. It hurt greatly. However, having learned from his mistake, when the thief set on him again one night some months later, the man was awake, and he was ready. He fought the thief tooth and nail until at long last the thief ran off into the night. And this is where we tend to think the story ends… but it’s not. It was many nights later that the thief returned again for the third time, the man realized his approach wasn’t working. “Friend,” he said to the robber, startling him as he climbed in through the back window, “why is it you keep returning to do me harm?” Ashamed and disarmed, the thief sat down and told the man his story. He explained his inability to find work and his newborn child at home in need of food. They talked until the early hours of the morning, when the man sent the thief home with a loaf of bread and the prospect of a job. The thief (who, was not a thief at all, but a child in need of compassion) did return again, often in fact, to the man’s home, but only friend and bother. [3] Waking up, staying awake, continuing to wake up… this is work, but it’s not exhausting work in the way we often think. It’s work in the same way that watering plants is work, making food is work, putting gas in your car is work. This is not work that drains you, but the work that energizes you and helps you grow. It’s the resurrection work of coming to life in new and deeper ways, of opening your eyes. People of God, as we journey this road, The Days of the Lord will come to us like thieves in the night, each bidding us to wake and arise to walk in the light. Let us wake, let us stay awake, and by the light we find, let us move steadily towards God. Amen.


Invitation to Respond


On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:

· Where have you experienced “The Day of the Lord,” and what has it woken you up to?

· Where do you sense the temptation to fall back asleep? What practices can you put in place to “stay awake?”

· In the parable of the Thief in the Night, name the three ways you saw the man “wake up.” Where are you in this story?

[1] Inception, Christopher Nolan, 2010. [2] Paraphrase of “Let America be America Again,” by Langston Hughes. https://poets.org/poem/let-america-be-america-again. [3] Story based on a segment of Zen Shorts, by Jon J Muth.

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