A sermon based on Psalm 23 and Ephesians 5:8-14 preached on March 13th, 2016
There’s a tale about a wise sage who is walking down the road, and a pilgrim approaches him.
Are you a saint?
the pilgrim asked.
the wise sage replied.
Are you a god?
the pilgrim asked.
the wise sage said.
Well, what are you
the pilgrim asked. The wise sage replied,
I am awake.
Most of the world’s religions say that God is always speaking. It’s just we who have to be awake to notice it.
Jesus told his disciples parables. Small stories told slowly with simple lessons. Much of the time, the disciples didn’t understand, but Jesus kept on telling them—perhaps hoping that one day they would know their meaning whenever the time was right, whenever they dared to step forward in their journey into bigger truth. It was through parables that Jesus proclaimed a Kingdom message:
The Kingdom of God is here. Closer than ever before. In fact, it’s breathing down your neck. So, wake up to its presence. For those of you with ears awake enough to hear, let them hear! For those of you with eyes awake enough to see, let them see!
Parables were Jesus’s way of shaking us alive—coaxing us out of the darkness and into the light. Becoming awake is always a possibility for us. It’s waiting around the corner. But the question is, Are we paying enough attention?
Jesus’ invitation at the end of each one of His parables was
Come pay attention; the Kingdom of God exists right in front of you. Come pay attention!
Jesus said those words more than any others. That’s because the greatest gift we can give ourselves, others, and God is to pay closer attention. The best way to nurture something into being—to bring it to life—is to give ourselves in full to it. We are what we give of attention to. So being a disciple of Jesus is nothing if it’s not an act of paying closer attention over and over again. The trouble there, of course, is that is so easy to pay attention to wrong things. We get distracted easily. There’s lots that we lose ourselves in. We busy ourselves with small things, and we think being awake and paying attention means staying busy. We think sitting to rest and reflect is a kind of tuning out. But what if we have that backwards? What if all our busyness is actually a sort of sleepwalking; and what if sitting down to reflect, breathe, and rest is the path to wakefulness?
When I did my year of hospital chaplaincy in Richmond ten years ago, I learned early on that the most effective way to reflect God’s presence to all those who had eyes to see, was to walk slowly. In a busy, level 1 trauma center, every doctor, nurse, tech was in constant hyper-drive. They had to be. Their job demanded it. And in and among the somewhat ordered chaos of a hospital, I could be a different presence for them, a reminder that slowing down, looking around, paying closer attention is the way of Jesus.
Martin Luther King, Jr was a busy man. He had many places to be. Once he signed onto be a part of the Civil Rights Movement, life was never the same again. But even though there were many demands and expectations placed upon him, he too took the time to walk slowly in order to send a larger message. He spoke slowly in order to be heard. And on the evening of April 16th, 1963, as he was spending slow time behind a set of iron bars in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The letter was addressed to the white clergy and other white Christian leaders of the day. And in it, King challenged them to speak up on behalf of their fellow Christians and clergy. He encouraged them to get behind him—to take up the cause of Civil Rights for all black Americans because the Gospel of Jesus Christ demanded it. In that letter, King expressed his disappointment in what he called their Do-Nothing-ism. He wrote:
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
Rev. Dr. King knew that Jesus calls his people out from behind our comfort zones—to stand out in the brightness of day—to shed light upon the truth that stands right in front of us. And even though emerging from out behind the dark and anesthetizing security of our church’s stained glass windows and into the bright light of day might hurt our eyes, that pain is only temporary. Sometimes it takes a while, but our eyes must adjust to new rays of light.
One of my very favorite movies is The Matrix, the first one of the trilogy. It stars Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishbone. It’s a sci-fi tale that poses the haunting question of whether or not all that we see around us is real. In the movie, the Matrix is the name of a computer simulated software program being fed into all of our heads, telling us that its real life.
There’s a John the Baptist figure in the movie whose name is Morpheus. Morpheus knows this computer generated Matrix isn’t real. He’s a prophet who goes around inviting people to wake up from this lie, urging them to wake up from their lifelong slumber and disconnect from this software program that’s feeding them lies. Morpheus is trying to open people’s eyes to the truth: the life they think they’re living isn’t life at all. Keanu Reeve’s character, Neo, is one of those people who wakes up to the truth. It’s much easier to stay asleep and believe the lies being fed to us. Waking up to the truth isn’t easy.
Once Neo wakes up to see the world as it really is and not as it had been fed to him by others, he asks Morpheus,
Why do my eyes hurt?
And Morpheus replies,
Because you’ve never used them before.
How many of us would like to stay in our dark rooms, asleep, believing that life as it’s fed to us by the world is the way things really are? But Paul has a different vision to share with us:
Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ—the Way, the Truth, and the Life—will shine upon you!…For once you were darkness. Now, in the Lord, you are light.
Jesus calls us out. The journey of discipleship—the faithful walk of every Christian is outward, from darkness to light. It’s about emerging from out behind our comfort zones, the anesthetizing security of our stained glass windows—and out into the world. To wake up from our slumber, clear our eyes of all those cobwebs, and doing the work of God for God’s people, in God’s world!
Notice Paul’s language in verse 8. Paul doesn’t say,
For once you were in darkness. Now you are in the light.
For once you were darkness, and now you are light.
We aren’t called to be children who live in light. We are children of light. Once darkness was something we had inside of us. It was internal. It’s something we were. Something that penetrated to the core of our being. But now, with Jesus, we are light! That light shines out from the very center of us. And it lights not only our way, but we challenged to walk with others and illumine their way, too!
When my brother and I were in grade school, my dad was our alarm clock. He would walk into our rooms and slam open the curtains so the rising sun shone right into our eyes. And whenever I would try to hide my face from the rays of light with my blankets, he would tear them off the bed, all the while singing a Good Morning song. All these shenanigans would happen way too early in the morning! All we wanted was 15 more minutes of sleep, but my dad’s wake up call never allowed for that. We knew that his rude arrival into our rooms meant that it was time to start paying attention to the day—to open our eyes and our ears to another morning. And every morning, I made my way to the bathroom, stumbling forward, wiping my eyes because I hadn’t used them yet.
Our calling as Christians is to pay closer attention—to become awake, to have eyes to see and ears to hear what Jesus is saying to us. The life of a Christian is made up of moments of stumbling forward. It’s made up of moments where we blunder onward—sometimes gracefully, but mostly not—from waking moment to waking moment. Sometimes we catch ourselves asleep in our daily patterns. Other times, we remember Christ’s invitation at the end of each of His parables: Awaken to the Kingdom that’s breathing down your neck!
Jesus wants us to ask for clearer vision and wider lenses so we can better pay attention to the in-breaking of light, because that’s a sure sign that God’s Kingdom is on earth just as it is in Heaven. Following Jesus is an act of opening ourselves up to the world—to allow every bit of it to surprise us awake, to stir us from our slumber. And being a disciple is first and foremost an act of paying closer and closer attention over and over again.
Friends, in these last weeks of Lent, draw closer to the Message of the Gospel. Walk beside Jesus as He makes His way to the cross. Find out what’s pleasing to the Lord, and give all your being to it. Don’t mistake being busy with being awake, but give yourself to slowing down and waking up.
There’s an Easter light up ahead, but first, first, we must be faithful and stumble forward with Jesus through a few more days of darkness.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!