I Thessalonians 5:1-11

My friends, I’d like to start this morning with a confession:

I am tired.

Now I’m not speaking about a kind of physical exhaustion that comes with long days filled with early mornings and late nights. While I may be experiencing that, I know that a long Sunday afternoon nap is in my schedule later today.

No, what I’m talking about is a kind of spiritual and emotional exhaustion, and I’m not foolish enough to believe that I’m the only one feeling it.

It’s a kind of exhaustion that comes with the world of 24-hour news channels and social media, as we’re constantly being confronted with devastating images and stories around our nation and our world. It’s the weariness that comes in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting with no signs of change in the near future, that comes with seeing parents asking for donations so that they can afford their children’s medical bills. It’s a fatigue from waking up each and every morning wondering what went wrong overnight, from fearing what each new day is going to bring.

It’s the kind of exhaustion where you wake up after a full night of sleep and hit snooze a few times because you’re still tired; where all you want to do is pull the covers over your head and go back to those dreams that are so much more bearable than reality.

And I have to realize that more often than not, this is what we do. While we can’t literally go back to sleep every morning, we find that we can get through these days sleepwalking. Sure, our bodies are awake; we’re physically awake and walking around. But it’s a lot easier to do that when our minds and spirits are shutting out any sense of what’s actually happening around us. It’s easier for us to turn off the news and to be in the dark as to what’s going on in the world. It’s easier to not let the people asking for money on the subway penetrate our own psyches and spirits; to ignore the pleas and suffering that we walk by every day.

Because to be fully cognizant of everything that we’re encountering on a daily basis — whether it be here in the City or the stories that we read online — to truly stay open to this reality is overwhelming, and we can be left feeling too helpless and too powerless to make even a small impact. So we succumb to that voice inside of our heads that tells us to just turn off and go back to sleep; to go back to the dream-world that we’ve concocted in which everything is more manageable and in our control.

The more often that we do this, however, the more likely we are to be completely out of sync with what is actually happening around us. We can persuade ourselves that things may not be as bad as we hear. The stories often don’t fit within our own carefully constructed worldviews, so we convince ourselves that they’re fabrications or exaggerations. And these worldviews that we’re creating are a lot cleaner than reality.

This isn’t anything new. The prophet Jeremiah denounced his community for proclaiming, “Peace, peace” when there was no peace in reality. [1] It’s the warning that Paul gives the Thessalonians in the reading that Jennifer read this morning, as the people who say that there is peace and security will soon be painfully confronted with the reality of their world. [2] And time after
time, we as a human species have a proclivity towards rejecting others’ realities and substituting them with our own individual “realities,” our own carefully manicured narratives in which we have some semblance of control or power.

But friends, when we’re sleepwalking through life in this way; when we’re blissfully unaware of the hard truths on our doorstep, we are in no position to confront those things that tear at our common humanity and at God’s own heart. For we know that we cannot start working towards change until we accept that there is a problem in the first place, and we have spent an
enormous amount of energy on protecting ourselves from the painful realities around us. So we stay asleep, not allowing anything to disturb our comfort. We convince ourselves that things are more peaceful than they are; that our livelihoods and our lifestyles are more secure than they really are.

And this is when the Christian gospel can cease to be good news, when it comes not as a bridegroom on a wedding day but as a thief in the night.

In two weeks, we will enter the season of Advent, a time in which we hear again the news of Jesus Christ’s coming. We will hear the song of Mary, who rejoices in the God who scatters the proud, brings down the powerful while raising the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things while sending the rich away. We’ll read from the prophet Isaiah, who proclaims the year of the
Lord’s favor and the day of God’s vengeance. We’ll gather to anticipate the turning of the world, the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and the presence of God in our midst. But as we are too comfortable with the present reality, the radical message of Christ is terrifying and devastating.

It is here that Paul’s words can come to us anew, calling us to wake from our slumber. For we are not children of the night, when others are sleeping or getting drunk, but rather are children of the day, awakened to the present moment, with our breastplates of faith and love and our helmets of hope.

When I was in seminary, there were many, many nights in which I would forego sleep to work on a paper or project over in the main library at Columbia University. It was always little eerie to be awake when everyone else was sleeping. Broadway would be completely empty, and all of the stores would be closed. More often than not, I would not pass one other person on the walk back to my apartment, and it seemed like the the neighborhood was completely shut down. The more that I was out late at night, however, I began to notice small signs of life around me. There was the bodega across the street from my building that would be receiving its morning shipment, prepping for another long day of business. The garbage trucks would rumble through the street, stopping at the corner trash cans to pick up whatever was in them, and the street sweeping trucks would be right behind them. And as I became more and more aware of what was happening around me, I began to notice quite a few more procrastinating students who were writing papers like I was. The one time that I thought was quiet was still packed with activity and other people; the night that I thought was peaceful ended up being not quite as peaceful as I thought it was.

Now, this example might be a bit of a stretch, but I think you can see where I am going with it. Be it wars, injustices, or a changing climate; be it our coworker who is struggling to pay their bills, the individual we pass who is trying to scrounge up enough money to buy lunch, or our friend who is in the grasps of depression, these situations occur whether we are engaged with the world or whether we are sleepwalking in our own dreams. Yet what better place for the church, the manifestation of God’s grace, the embodiment of the Holy Spirit’s comforting presence, and the body — the hands and feet — of Christ?

But there is something that we miss when we’re asleep.

Because when you’re out there in the darkest point of the night, you can always look up and see specks of light from the stars; and if you’re out there late enough — if you manage to put off sleep for that long — you reach a point at which it begins to get brighter. It’s subtle at first, but you can’t miss it. The sky lightens and gives way to the bright colors of the sunrise, and you find yourself at the dawn of a new day, of new light.

And the same goes with this image that Paul leads us through in our text this morning. The Second Coming will not come like a thief in the night because those who are fully awake will see specks of its arrival here and there. And if you can manage to stay awake for that long, you reach a point where you can’t help but notice that Kingdom of God has been in our midst all of this time, and it will reach a point where it casts out any remaining darkness into the bright, colorful dawn.

Until then, it’s going to be exhausting. But in the same way that Paul commended the early Thessalonians, I want to urge us to continue encouraging one another and building each other up, supporting us when it seems like the easiest thing to do is just to fall asleep instead of staying awake to our world. It’s one of the primary vocations of the Church – a community where we can all rest when we need to rest, to recharge when we need to recharge, and to have a family who is with us every step of the way, picking us up when we fall short and elbowing us in the side when we begin to nod off.

I don’t know when that dawn is going to break; I have a feeling that we still have a ways to go. But I do know that there are signs of it around us now, glimmers of hope and love piercing through the darkness of all of the news and troubles around us. But for the sake of the Church, and for the sake of your own well being, stay awake. Grab a strong cup of coffee to keep you going. Because there is something stirring among us right here and right now that is far better than we could ever dream of, if only we are awake to see it.

If I may end with a blessing from Jan Richardson, a fellow Methodist artist and author:

This is the blessing
that writes itself
in your sleeping.

This is the blessing
that inscribes itself
in your waking.

This is the blessing
that twines through
your heart
with every beat,
that lays itself
across your brow
in every moment,
that breathes with you
in every breath

so that even
in your resting
you know
and even
in your slumber
you are aware
and even
in your dreaming
your heart keeps time
with the voice that calls
to you

[1] Jeremiah 6:14
[2] I Thessalonians 5:3
[3] Jan Richardson, Whether Awake or Asleep,