A wonderful thing happened to me in the Tim Horton’s drivethru on Saturday; an older man was blasting country music from the car in front of me, singing along, having a great time. This was infectious on its own. But when I got up to pay it turned out that he had paid for my coffee. I followed him out of the line, was able to pull up beside him at a red light, and say thank you. Still blasting his music, he yelled, No problem, man! And drove off. I felt good all day. It was just a clear reminder again of the contagion of kindness, and what a difference small gestures can make, even when they come from stranger. That man was awake, he was looking for little ways to bring joy. It is what is wonderful about us, as people.
But this happened Saturday – still a few hours before the US election was officially called for Joel Biden and Kamala Harris. And it felt a long way from earlier this week when I first sat down to write this sermon. When we all woke up the morning after the U.S. election to no clear decision, and the President of the United States calling for states to stop counting legitimate votes. With all that has been happening in the world right now, more uncertainty piled upon uncertainty was the last thing any of us needed. A rhetoric of hate is heartbreaking. A virus circling around us is unsettling. And I know piled on top of that, a lot of you are dealing with your own individual challenges. Some that continue to tear you down – estranged family members, loneliness, health issues, stress at work, worries about money, about our kids, and the future. Life, regular or otherwise, keeps happening all around us. Not knowing one more thing on that Wednesday morning was a lot to take. We understandably feel as if the oil in our lamps has been used up, the light has gone out, we have been unprepared for all of this. Wouldn’t it be great just to go to sleep and wake up when this all is over?
And yet, in the gospel we have clear instructions from Jesus: Keep awake.
If the thought of one more challenge exhausts you, that’s okay. One thing I feel is important is not to beat ourselves up for our weak moments in this time, when we feel angry or broken, when we just want to pretend that none of this is happening. This is normal, and maybe it is even necessary. Even Jesus, famously on the cross, has his moment of faltering doubt. Faith is a marathon, and some days we are more sluggish than others, some days we don’t want to get out of bed. That is okay. Give yourself permission to feel that way. Forgive yourself when it happens.
The other thing I think we all may feel is powerlessness. Most of us are not on the front lines saving lives. We can’t produce a vaccine. We can’t change the outcome of an election. So many of our stresses are not of our own doing – they are happening to us, on this larger scale, they are outside of our ability to control.
But this is where our gospel this morning offers a tonic for all this uncertainty, this restlessness, and this powerlessness.
The question it raises is this: what are we staying awake for?
The gospel is suggesting that we do have power; we can keep our light burning. We can stay awake for the small ways that we can help. Think of our current stress as layers, peels of an onion. Remove the outer layers of our current stress, the pandemic, the unrest in our southern neighbor and around the world. We arrive at an individual level where we can make a difference. It is disheartening – and extremely worrying – that our neighbors to the south remain divided and did not collectively denounce the kind of leadership that sows hatred, preaches intolerance, and governs with fear.
But we have a choice – one reiterated by President-Elect Joe Biden in his victory speech last night. President-Elect Biden told a story about his grandfather telling him as a little boy to “keep the faith,” and his grandmother always calling back, “no, share it!” That is a pretty good way of looking at our call from Jesus today – we stay awake both by keeping faith in ourselves and sharing faith with others. One doesn’t work alone.
We know what sharing faith looks like: We can focus on the qualities that unite us, as a way to wrestle with the things that seem to divide us. We can respond in our everyday actions with love, tolerance, and courage to confront challenges in positive ways and not run from them. If it seems clichéd to be preaching in favour of love, consider what the alternative is. Hate is not more powerful; it is just more obvious. Love is shown, and spread, in gentle actions and soft gestures like an amaryllis plant given to a person who thinks that they have been forgotten. It is not as noisy as hate – love doesn’t slam doors; it opens them politely. It is the only way clear of these times. It is the gospel’s way.
But how do we stay awake when the weariness of it all feels overwhelming? We must also keep faith in ourselves. I worry very much about the burdens many of us are carrying, and the loneliness we feel. We need to encourage each other to care for ourselves – go for walks, change our scenery, pray, take a nap, binge on some funny TV. And we must take care of others, so that life has meaning.
The hard truth is, despite our best intentions, we all fall asleep sometimes. We are not perfect. Don’t feel bad about it. This is why we have community, why we have one another, why we have people who can remain awake on our behalf.
But by listening for the voice of God, deliberately, and intentionally, we find a new way. On the cross, Jesus felt forsaken, but his desperate question was answered by the Resurrection. I can tell you that every time I sit with questions about the gospel, the core of the gospel, what truly matters, is illuminated for me. God answers. Listen for God, and the resurrection happens. We make it through and we rise again.
Last Sunday we remembered those we loved and lost. We remembered their lives as witnesses to the truth of the resurrection for their lives and for ours. We listened to God so that we might rise again to a place of peace.
Last night, I heard Biden speak about justice and equality and faith. I heard Kamala Harris, the Black and South Asian daughter of immigrants speak of new beginnings, and firsts that would not be lasts. In their positive message of hope and possibility – even in uncertainty – the gospel shone. It shone in the dancing in the streets. Things aren’t perfect. There is work to be done – as there is always work to be done. And yet we were all reminded that, even in the midst of loss and despair, even in uncertainty, even when hate casts a heavy shadow, there are always people who do not let the oil in their lamp run out, who keep the light going. There are always people who stay awake.
This Wednesday we remember the legions of men and women who stayed awake through the torment of war, the horrors of which need no retelling. They sacrificed themselves so that we might rise again. People willing to risk everything for what is Good and Right to make the resurrection happen. They sacrificed themselves so that we might rise again.
I hope today you take a moment to breathe. To feel the sun. To see joy. To keep the faith. And share the faith. This is how we stay awake. This is how we rise again.